Could a Blood Test Diagnose Major Depression in Teens?

Researchers at Northwestern University Medical School have suggested that depression in teens could be diagnosed with a simple blood test. Their study, published in the April 17, 2012 issue of Translational Psychiatry, identifies 11 biomarkers for early-onset major depressive disorder—one of the most common yet debilitating mental illnesses among young people. If the results are confirmed in larger populations, diagnosis could become a much simpler process, and one that might help teens avoid some of the stigma currently associated with a depression diagnosis.

Early-onset major depressive disorder is a serious mental illness that affects mainly teenagers and young adults. Although 2 to 4% of cases are diagnosed before adolescence, the numbers increase dramatically to 10-25% with adolescence, according to lead researcher Eva Redei, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Not diagnosed, depression affects how teens relate to others. The No. 1 cause of death among the depressed is suicide,” explained Redei in a recent interview with CNN. “If teens are depressed and not treated, there can be drug abuse, dropping out of school. Their whole lives can depend on these crucial and vulnerable years.”

In the study, researchers tested the blood of 28 teens, ages 15 to 19. Fourteen had been diagnosed as depressed, and the others were healthy. The researchers examined a panel of 28 markers that circulate in the blood; results showed that 11 of these markers could, with a high degree of accuracy, predict major depression in the subjects. Depression is currently diagnosed through psychological evaluations conducted by health care providers.

A blood test to diagnose depression could help reduce the stigma associated with this mental illness and help depressed teens to get the treatment and support they need. For many teens who are too embarrassed to ask for help, this blood test could be a huge step in the right direction. “Once you have a measurable index of an illness, it’s very difficult to say, ‘Just pull yourself together,’ or ‘Get over it,’” Redei explained recently to the Los Angeles Times.

Others are cautious in their response to the study. Dr. Lloyd Sederer, medical director of the New York State Office of Mental Health, suggests that this study could give parents and teens false hope about treatment. “When something like this comes out and gets a lot of attention, it’s a false promise to parents, because it’s nowhere ready for prime time,” he said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “Some of the risks have not been considered yet. And does it really shape, in any way, how effective your treatment is going to be now?”

What do you think? In what ways could a diagnostic blood test for depression affect treatment for your clients? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!

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