Scientists Discover Biomarker to Screen Teens with Anxiety , Depression

First Posted: Nov 29, 2012 03:05 AM EST

The most common emotional health problems faced by young people are depression and anxiety. People with anxiety disorders experience fear. Anxiety becomes a problem when it prevents individuals from enjoying normal life experiences for a long period of time.

For those teens, which are at a higher risk of developing depression and anxiety, a team of scientists has discovered a cognitive biomarker: a biological indicator of the disease.

The test for the unique cognitive biomarker, which can be done on a computer, could be used as an inexpensive tool to screen adolescents for common emotional mental illnesses. As the cognitive biomarker may appear prior to the symptoms of depression and anxiety, early intervention can then be initiated.

In order to conduct the study, the scientists carefully analyzed 15 to 18-year-olds who underwent genetic testing and environmental assessment.

The young people were given a computer test to measure the manner in which they process the emotional information. In the test the participants were asked to evaluate whether words were positive, negative or neutral.

The teens with a variation of one gene, as well as exposure to intermittent family arguments for longer than 6 months and violence between parents before the age of 6, had difficulty in evaluating the emotions within the words.

Previous research linked a maladjusted insight and response to emotions, as seen here, with a significantly increased risk of depression and anxiety.

This exercise currently is too expensive and takes too long to use as a widespread method of screening.

Professor Ian Goodyer, principal investigator on the study from the University of Cambridge, said: "Whether we succumb to anxiety and depression depends in part on our tendencies to think well or poorly of ourselves at troubled times. How it comes about that some people see the 'glass half full' and think positively whereas others see the 'glass half empty' and think negatively about themselves at times of stress is not known.

"The evidence is that both our genes and our early childhood experiences contribute to such personal thinking styles. Before there are any clinical symptoms of depression or anxiety, this test reveals a deficient ability to efficiently and effectively perceive emotion processes in some teenagers -- a biomarker for low resilience which may lead to mental illnesses."

With this finding the scientists hope to develop inexpensive cognitive tests to screen for these illnesses particularly in people identified as being at high social and genetic risk.  

Dr Matthew Owens from the University of Cambridge added: "Having difficulty in processing emotions is likely to contribute to misunderstanding other people's intentions and can make individuals emotionally vulnerable. This research opens up the possibility of identifying individuals at greatest risk and helping them with techniques to process emotions more easily or training them to respond more adaptively to negative feedback."

Professor Goodyer further stated: "These types of cognitive biomarker can also be used to aid therapeutics by helping to determine which treatments are likely to work best for types of depressions and anxiety disorders. This is important, as although we have good treatments we do not yet know what works best for whom."

Professor Barbara Sahakian, a co-author on the paper from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge said: "The way we perceive and respond to emotions affects our resilience and whether we succumb to depression and other maladaptive ways of thinking. Using the biomarker identified in this study, it is possible to develop a screening programme to identify those at greatest risk."

Their findings were published today, 28 November, in the journal PLOS ONE.

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