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Depression diagnosed with a simple blood test?

February 7, 2012
by Nick Zubko, Associate Editor
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Could there be a way to diagnose depression from a simple blood test? Based on a new study conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, the possibility may be closer to reality than you think.

According to the study, a blood test designed to analyze the levels of nine biomarkers was able to accurately distinguish patients diagnosed with depression from others. The study was sponsored by Ridge Diagnostics (the firm that developed the blood test) and published in the December issue of Molecular Psychiatry.

George Papakostas, MD, of the Massachusetts General Hospital's department of psychiatry and the study's lead author said that while diagnosis of major depression traditionally has been made based on patients' reported symptoms, the accuracy of that process varies a great deal. "Adding an objective biological test could improve diagnostic accuracy and may also help us track individual patients' response to treatment,” Papakostas said.

The test measures levels of nine biomarkers associated with factors such as inflammation, the development and maintenance of neurons, and the interaction between brain structures involved with stress response and other key functions. Two groups participated in the study; one group consisted of patients diagnosed with MDD, while the other included subjects considered to be “not depressed.”

According to the results, the test was 91% accurate in identifying patients with depression, while patients who weren't depressed were identified 81% of the time.

John Bilello, chief scientific officer of Ridge Diagnostics and co-author of the study, said the biological basis of the test could “provide patients with insight into their depression as a treatable disease rather than a source of self-doubt and stigma.”

However, some believe diagnosing depression with a blood test could be a double-edged sword. For example, ABC News recently discussed the study with Dr. Harold Koenig, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center. Koenig raised concern over the potential consequences for people who might test negative despite having real mental health issues.

“[For those people], their symptoms might be discounted by family members and by health professionals,” Koenig said. “This could place a huge burden on patients who are already suffering, and be told that they really don’t have depression because they had a low score on a less-than-perfect test.”

While this could be a fascinating development, how do you perceive the potential pros and cons of a biological test for depression? Is it something that could feasibly be used effectively in the assessment process? If so, in what ways would it change how diagnosis and treatment is approached?



Biomarkers for depression are not surprising. So little is known about mental illness and brain chemistry, however, that using a test for diagnosis--and hence insurance eligibility--is a slippery slope. Many people with mental illness go through a long period of denial before seeking help. This test might be useful in that case. Overall, it's an intriguing diagnostic tool, but clients need to know about its limitations.

I've been waiting for more than 35 years for there to be some objective test, other than reporting symptoms, to work with bipolar disorder. Even if it were only 90% accurate it would be superior to what now exists, or doesn't. It's quite a frustrating struggle getting to a point of acceptance that you have an illness when there's no concrete, objective test to prove it.

Nick Zubko

Associate Editor

Nick Zubko


Nick Zubko is associate editor of Behavioral Healthcare.

The opinions expressed by Behavioral Healthcare Executive bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the publication.