One of the biggest societal challenges to helping those with mental disorders is that most of the diseases afflicting them are impossible to test for. If somebody is depressed, for example, there is no way to subjectively test for it; you just have to take their word that they’re filling out a psychological survey honestly and accurately.
But perhaps it doesn’t have to be that way. Researchers across the world are looking for biological signals that indicate when people have disorders ranging from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder. Think of how nice it would be if doctors could do a simple blood test and discover who was having these sorts of issues.
Aside from simply helping people lead better lives, this sort of research could help save lives altogether. For example, a recent study at Indiana University went in search of biomarkers for suicide. More specifically, they were looking for active RNA – the molecular machines that put our DNA into action – which indicate which genes are contributing to our immediate biological processes.
And they looked in a lot of places.
During a three-year period, researchers followed a large group of patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder – certainly a group at risk for suicidal thoughts. Every few months, they asked the cohort about their suicidal tendencies and drew blood samples. By tracking their reported thoughts and analyzing the expression of their genes, the researchers were able to come up with a handful of genetic markers that became much more active when patients started having stronger suicidal thoughts.
But of course the researchers had to back up these findings, so they took some extra steps. They analyzed blood samples from the local coroners office of victims who had succumbed to suicidal thoughts. Additionally, they analyzed the blood test results from two more groups of patients and discovered that some of the same biomarkers were able to predict future suicide-related hospitalizations, as well as previous hospitalizations.
In the end, one gene called SAT1 proved to be the strongest predictor, along with 13 other weaker signals. Many of these biomarkers are affected by low omega-3 levels and have been implicated in modulating our circadian rhythms – the natural ebb and flow of life to the cycle of day and night. Others have been identified as markers in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as being biomarkers for stress.
In short, these genes that apparently become active in people with suicidal thoughts play a part in many different biological functions. What exactly each of them is doing remains largely unknown. But that’s okay, because the researchers don’t need to know exactly what it is they’re doing. Their end goal is simply to be able to say, “Hey, you’re showing very high levels of these 13 things, which indicates to us that you have a very high likelihood of having suicidal thoughts. Why don’t we sit down and talk about it?”
The study, “Discovery and validation of blood biomarkers for suicidality,” was published in the Nature journal Molecular Psychiatry by Alexander Niculescu, associate professor of psychiatry at Indiana University and director of the Laboratory for Neurophenomics. Naturally, there were 22 other authors listed on the paper, but I’m not about to go digging up all of their titles.