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Researchers have reported preliminary findings from two studies which indicate blood tests to diagnose depression might be on the horizon.
In a study published three years ago in the journal Translational Psychiatry, researchers from Northwestern University in Chicago announced that they had identified a set of eleven genetic (RNA) markers in the blood of teenagers (age 15 to 19) who were diagnosed with major depressive disorder. These same markers were not present in a control group of teens who did not have depression.
This month the same group of researchers detailed their work, comparing blood samples of 32 adult (age 23 to 83) individuals who had been diagnosed with depression, with blood from 32 individuals who did not suffer from depression. All 64 subjects were put through cognitive behavioral therapy during the period of the study.
Of those that were suffering depression, some 40% showed improvement after completion of the therapy.
The researchers found nine RNA markers that were at different levels in the depressed subjects than in the control group. Drilling down further, for the group of patients that showed improvement after therapy, there were similar levels of these markers within the group. Those that did not show improvement did not have this consistency of findings.
All of the depressed subjects had similar levels of three other markers, which could signal a predisposition to recurrent depression.
The researchers have indicated that there is more work to be done. One measure they don't yet have is how early these markers appear. If children could be identified as vulnerable to clinical depression early on, they might be able to receive treatment as they age.
Depression is treated most effectively when it is caught early, Recent studies have put the average time to diagnosis between two and forty months. When depression is suspected in children, teens, or adults, diagnosis and treatment is of greater benefit sooner, rather than later.
The research team has also pointed out that they believe their testing protocol can be expanded to determine which treatments might be most effective for individual sufferers.
We are some distance from being able to diagnose depression from a simple blood test. The research this team has undertaken represents only the first steps towards making that possible. Their successes to date, however, give us a lot of hope that we will one day be able to see our physician and, with one blood test, receive both a diagnosis and a treatment plan to treat our emotional pain.
Insurance companies, loathe to cover treatment for mental health issues, should be more amenable when both the disease and the response to treatment are measurable.
A blood test to confirm either the diagnosis of depression or the propensity to it will provide an objective method of diagnosis. No longer will depression be viewed as personal weakness. No longer will those suffering from depression feel the stigma associated with any form of mental illness.
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