Monday, March 03, 2008

Future Blood Tests may Reveal Mental Disorders such as Bipolar Disorder and Depression

(The following post was written and contributed by an individual, who, like me, is also a former disability claims examiner)

Recently, I read an article about a blood test that may have the capability of revealing mental illness and I must say that the possibility both excited and worried me. Speaking as a daughter and mother of bipolar individuals, the thought that medical professionals would be better equipped to diagnose my loved one’s mental status through a blood test excited me. It is often difficult for medical professionals to assess the severity of their patients’ moods by observations and conversations with them.

The research study involved twenty-nine individuals who had already been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The purpose of the study was to determine the severity of the individual’s bipolar disorder, and was accomplished by questioning these individuals about their mood at the time they were given the blood test. Researchers assessed gene activity in the blood, as to which genes were active and which were turned off in patients who indicated high moods and those who indicated low moods.

The results of this research were combined with genetic information from animal models and samples taken from the brains of deceased individuals who had been diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder. The assessment of research data has enabled researchers to identify ten genes in the blood that are useful in predicting and individual’s mood. The accuracy of the blood test as to mood was within acceptable ranges of other medical tests. Researchers were able to correctly assess a high mood eighty-five percent of the time and a low mood seventy-seven percent of the time.

Presently, medical professionals relay upon their observations and the patient’s statements, consequently the severity of an individual’s illness is easily underestimated or overestimated by their treating physician. Dr. Alexander Niculescu, III, the lead researcher of the study, which was published recently in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry, believes that an objective test that enables a medical professional to determine mental status, severity of illness, and assessment of response to treatment is a huge step in the right direction. Other medical professionals are rightly concerned about the possible ethical questions that a blood test for mental illness would raise. For instance, insurance companies to deny benefits to potential clients could use these same blood tests; blood tests could be used to determine an individual’s competence, enrollment in college, to screen potential employees, or a myriad of other controversial ways.

After considering all of the above, I have to say that I would not wish for my child to be denied access to educational or employment opportunities because of a blood test. I worry that blood tests used to assess mental illness may become a weapon for employers, law enforcement, and insurance companies. In fact these blood tests will most likely be used for the reasons listed above as much or more than as a tool for improved assessment of the severity of an individual’s bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, or anxiety disorders. As with so many other medical advancements, we as a society must be careful not to open a Pandora’s box.

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