New test for depression may be a giant step in the fight against stigma

by Cody Dolan on June 3, 2011 · 2 comments

in diagnostics

Ask any of the clinicians here at The Menninger Clinic, and I imagine they’ll probably tell you that diagnosing patients is one of the toughest parts of their job.

The mind is a complex organ – one we don’t fully understand – so evaluating symptoms and nailing down an accurate diagnosis is much more difficult that any movie would have you believe. I mean, if Billy Crystal can help a mob leader or Robin Williams can “cure” Matt Damon by saying, “It’s not your fault” over and over again, how hard can this psychiatry thing be, right?

There’s a reason why so many patients come to us having received several different, sometimes conflicting, diagnoses along the way, often by several different doctors. Diagnosing mental illness is hard.

New development

So it’s a pretty big deal when something new can be added to the diagnostic toolbox, and it looks like that’s what happened recently thanks to researchers at Keio University in Tokyo. Scientists there have apparently developed a blood test that can diagnose depression, one that takes only a few minutes to run and has an 82 percent success rate. (Go here if you want to read a little about the science behind the test.)

Aside from the obvious benefits to doctors and patients, I think this test represents a significant milestone on the road to overcoming stigma. If this test can win widespread acceptance, patients will have tangible proof of their illness, something they can point to and say, “See, this isn’t all in my head. Or, well, it is, but you know what I mean….”

Early detection

Take a look at what Dr Yoshiaki Ohashi, a board director and chief security officer at Human Metabolome Technologies, told The Telegraph:

“The findings will make it easier for an objective, biological diagnosis of depressive patients. We believe that the use of such a test will make it possible to diagnose patients efficiently at the primary care stage.”

Dr. Ohashi uses the term “primary care stage,” and the author of the piece writes about improving “early detection rates.” Both are terms used often when talking about cancer, and to see them applied here adds weight to a class of diseases that isn’t usually mentioned in the same breath as other well-known afflictions.

We’ll keep you posted on whether this test receives approval from the Japanese health ministry.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

MummyDLIA June 9, 2011 at 7:03 pm

An interesting musing. My mind goes a step ahead and wonders what it would be like if this test was administered to those claiming to be suffering. And what if their test were to come out negative? How would treaters react? Would they say, “No your suffering is not real”? As someone who believes that mental illness is, at its root, a disruption of relationship with self and others, I step gingerly around this idea. Humans suffer… not sure if there needs to be a test for that.

Thanks for bringing this up — made me think.

Dr. B-W June 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Advancing the results of one clinical trial with a total depressed sample of 31 is mind-bogglingly inappropriate. This study represents an initial finding that requires replication, let alone critical analysis of the initial study itself, before any responsible health care provider considers it anything more than a fluke.

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