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Scientists can now diagnose depression with a blood test

Despite the fact that mental illness is quite common, it’s still heavily stigmatized across cultures and sometimes even challenging to diagnose and treat. Even if you are lucky enough to have good behavioral health care, your doctor has to combine their subjective observations with your self-reported symptoms in order to figure out what’s ailing you. In that way, mental health diagnosis is just not an exact science. Luckily, these scientists are trying to change that by developing a blood test to diagnose depression and bipolar disorders. This is huge, since being able to “prove” that depression is real will reduce some of the stigma attached to mental illness so that those who are struggling can get the care they need.

According to a report released today in Molecular Psychiatry, scientists at Indiana University School of Medicine have created a blood test that can measure whether a person is at higher risk for developing severe depression or bipolar disorder — a.k.a. manic-depression, EurekAlert reported. The research took place over the course of four years and followed the treatment of over 300 individuals. While that’s a modest sized study, it’s a significant one given the time span.

Over this time period, researchers observed individuals in both high and low mood states and recorded changes in biological markers found in the blood — biomarkers — between the two states. The scientists then analyzed what they found in their participants’ blood against a database of mental health findings and were able to narrow down 26 biomarkers present in people diagnosed with severe depression or mania, EurekAlert reported.

Think of it this way: The biomarkers made sort of a key that allowed scientists to map out the individual landscape of each person’s mental health, and once they knew where each patient was metaphorically located, they could then prescribe the right meds. This medication component is crucial. We all know someone who’s been on the antidepressant medication rollercoaster, riding the waves until their doctor finally — hopefully — gets their doses right.

Taking some of the guesswork out of mental healthcare was exactly what the scientists had in mind. “We wanted to develop blood tests for depression and for bipolar disorder, to distinguish between the two, and to match people to the right treatments," Alexander Niculescu, leader of the study and Professor of Psychiatry at IU School of Medicine, told EurekAlert. And, Niculescu explained, blood testing for mental illness could also make mental health treatment more personalized. "Blood tests can open the door to precise, personalized matching with medications, and objective monitoring of response to treatment."

Unfortunately, the tests aren’t available just yet, but researchers are working with pharmaceutical companies and other doctors to bring them into clinical practice quickly. These kinds of developments can’t come fast enough, as far as I’m concerned. “Ultimately, the mission is to save and improve lives,” Niculescu told EurekAlert, and to bring the field of psychiatry, “from the 19th century into the 21st century.”