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Mental Illness, Put to the Test

Improvements in diagnosis are changing perceptions of mental illness.

We rely on tests to determine what’s wrong with us, physically. When something’s wrong mentally or emotionally, however, we have to describe how we feel. But what if there were a way to tell, biologically, that you or someone in your family was suffering from a mental illness?

Researchers are making strides in doing just that.

One promising development comes from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago: a blood test to diagnose depression in adults.

The test identifies depression by measuring the levels of nine RNA blood markers, the molecules that interpret a person’s DNA genetic code. Those molecules also function as messengers that carry instructions to the body. The test also indicates who may respond to therapy, and what kind.

Other researchers believe that physical evidence of mental illness can be found without invasive procedures, such as drawing blood.

Dr. David Wong is leading a study of saliva for biomarkers of various cancers. A biomarker is a measurable indicator that detects the severity or presence of a disease. Dr. Wong believes that analyzing molecules in saliva is one of these indicators, and can help diagnose mental illness.

He explains that “the salivary glands are controlled by the brain, so if one is happy, or sad, it’s reflected in the molecules that are passed from the brain to the salivary glands.”

Others have taken up the search for indicators of mental illness within the body itself. These researchers no longer think of mental illness only in terms of behavior.

Article image of testing for mental illness.

Dr. Bruce Cuthbert believes that the study of mental illness is developing along the lines of newer thinking about other diseases, such as cancer.

Cuthbert says that certain molecular signatures – the genes, proteins and variations – that indicate cancer occur in many different organs. Now researchers don’t think of cancer so much in terms of lung, pancreatic or bladder cancer, but in terms of the indicators, or biosignatures, that can appear in any organ. Cuthbert is applying the same idea to mental disorders.

“If you measure certain bio-signatures at the very start of treatment,” he says, “then again one week later, can you see early changes that will predict outcomes eight weeks down the line?”

The big picture, however, goes beyond changing how mental illness is diagnosed and treated. It’s about how physical evidence may affect patients’ overall health when it’s proven that their suffering is not “all in their head.”

Mental illness is associated with chronic medical diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer, as well as physical inactivity, smoking, excessive drinking, and insufficient sleep. Progress in diagnosis and treatment means better health and wellness, overall.

“Once we can prove that there are clear physiological changes that go with being depressed, it lessens the stigma of mental illness,” says Dr. Eva Redei, co-lead of the Feinburg study. “Maybe people will get treatment faster and suffering will be lessened.”

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