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Scientists identify depression and anxiety biomarker in youths

Test could be used as an inexpensive screening tool to facilitate early intervention

University of Cambridge

Scientists have discovered a cognitive biomarker - a biological indicator of a disease - for young adolescents who are at high risk of developing depression and anxiety. Their findings were published today, 28 November, in the journal PLOS ONE.

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 (which has proven to be one of the most effective ways of combatting mental illness) could then be initiated.

For the study, 15-18 year old participants underwent genetic testing and environmental assessment, an exercise which would currently be too expensive and take too long to use as a widespread method of screening. The adolescents were then given a computer test to gauge how they process emotional information. The test had the participants evaluate whether words were positive, negative or neutral (examples included 'joyful' for positive, 'failure' for negative, and 'range' for neutral).

Those adolescents with a variation of one gene (the short form of the serotonin transporter) as well as exposure to intermittent family arguments for longer than six months and violence between parents before the age of six were shown to have marked difficulty in evaluating the emotion within the words, indicating an inability to process emotional information. Previous research associated a maladjusted perception and response to emotions, as seen here, with a significantly increased risk of depression and anxiety.

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 other 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."

The scientists hope that their research could lead to developing 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."

Mental health problems are common in young people with approximately 10% of children (aged 5-16 years old) in Great Britain being assessed as having a mental disorder of some kind including conduct disorder, emotional disorder or hyperactivity. In addition, adolescence is a critical period for the development of depressions.


The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the National Institute of Health Research Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (NIHR CLAHRC)

For additional information please contact:
Genevieve Maul, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge
Tel: direct, +44 (0) 1223 765542, +44 (0) 1223 332300
Mob: +44 (0) 7774 017464

Notes to editors:

1. The paper '5-HTTLPR and Early Childhood Adversities Moderate Cognitive and Emotional Processing in Adolescence' will be published in the 28 November edition of PLOS ONE. When it is published, the live article will be available at pone.0048482

2. The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.

3. National Institute of Health Research Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (NIHR CLAHRC) (Cambridgeshire and Peterborough) - The CLAHRC CP is a collaboration between the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Cambridge in partnership with a wide range of Cambridgeshire and East Anglian health and social care providers (read more about our partners). The National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) established nine Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC) in 2008 to undertake high quality applied health research focused on the needs of patients and service users, and to support the translation of research evidence into practice in the NHS and social care.

The CLAHRC CP's research focuses on people with mental illness, intellectual (learning) disabilities, acquired brain injury, and care for those approaching the end of life. The CLAHRC CP is a multi-disciplinary and multi-agency project with the three clinical research themes cross cut by two implementation themes. Read more about our research and implementation themes.

4. The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is funded by the Department of Health to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. Since its establishment in April 2006, the NIHR has transformed research in the NHS. It has increased the volume of applied health research for the benefit of patients and the public, driven faster translation of basic science discoveries into tangible benefits for patients and the economy, and developed and supported the people who conduct and contribute to applied health research. The NIHR plays a key role in the Government's strategy for economic growth, attracting investment by the life-sciences industries through its world-class infrastructure for health research. Together, the NIHR people, programmes, centres of excellence and systems represent the most integrated health research system in the world. For further information, visit the NIHR website.

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