Could Depression Be Diagnosed By A Blood Test In The Future?

By David Konow 08/07/18

Researchers may have discovered a possible biomarker for major depressive disorder.

Laboratory technician holding a blood tube test

A blood test is in the works that may be an important new step in fighting depression.

In a new study, researchers in the U.S. and Sweden have been examining a chemical in the brain, acetyl-L-carnitine, or LAC for short, to determine if it plays a role in depression. 

Natalie Rasgon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, who is a senior author in this study, told ABC News, “Previous animal studies convincingly showed the role of LAC in models of depression. This study is the first confirmation of the results from animal studies in human subjects with depression.”

A previous study on LAC was conducted on mice and it did improve their depression symptoms. LAC could be used as a biomarker in patients, meaning a measurable chemical in the brain that shows the presence of a disease, and it could eventually be a way to screen and diagnose people with serious or treatment-resistant depression.

Newsweek reports that among the 116 people who participated in this survey, 71 had depression and 45 did not. The participants with depression had lower levels of LAC than others. For the participants with severe depression, their LAC levels were very low. This study revealed that LAC levels were lowest with women who had treatment-resistant depression, and who endured childhood trauma.

There could also eventually be supplements that could improve people’s LAC levels down the road, yet Rasgon adds, “We are at the very beginning of this discovery and can’t recommend people to buy this supplement at the GNC store… There are many questions to be answered—who will ultimately benefit from taking this supplement, what is the right dose, what is the appropriate duration of use.”

Over 300 million people live with depression worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. It is a complex mental health issue to fight. “Depressive disorders can present differently in different people,” Rasgon says. “What is known now is that depression affects not just the brain but the whole organism.”

Still, Rasgon is enthusiastic about the early results from this study. “We are working on extending them to further understand the role of LAC in patients receiving treatment for depression," she says. "It is one of the pieces of a very large puzzle that constitutes depressive disorders as an illness.” 

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.