Scientists identify depression and anxiety biomarker in youths

November 28, 2012, 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 , 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 and anxiety, (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 and , 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 ) 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 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 ."

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.

Explore further: The emotion detectives uncover new ways to fight off youth anxiety and depression

More information: 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. pone.0048482

Related Stories

The emotion detectives uncover new ways to fight off youth anxiety and depression

July 11, 2012
Emotional problems in childhood are common. Approximately 8 to 22 percent of children suffer from anxiety, often combined with other conditions such as depression. However, most existing therapies are not designed to treat ...

Computer programs may be able to identify individuals most at risk of anxiety, mood disorders

February 16, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Computer programs can be taught to differentiate between the brain scans of healthy adolescents and those most at risk of developing psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression, according to ...

Classroom therapy may not be answer to treating depression in teenagers, study finds

November 7, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—Researchers at the University's Department for Health have found that introducing mood therapy into the classroom may not be the answer to treating depression in teenagers.

One-third of adult Americans with arthritis battle anxiety or depression

April 30, 2012
Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that one-third of U.S. adults with arthritis, 45 years and older, report having anxiety or depression. According to findings that appear today in ...

Recommended for you

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

Tracking the impact of early abuse and neglect

January 17, 2018
Children who experience abuse and neglect early in life are more likely to have problems in social relationships and underachieve academically as adults.

Study: No evidence to support link between violent video games and behaviour

January 16, 2018
Researchers at the University of York have found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent.

Can psychedelic drugs 'reconnect' depressed patients with their emotions?

January 15, 2018
Imperial research suggests psilocybin can help relieve the symptoms of depression, without the 'dulling' of emotions linked with antidepressants.

Study listens in on speech development in early childhood

January 15, 2018
If you've ever listened in on two toddlers at play, you might have wondered how much of their babbling might get lost in translation. A new study from the University of Toronto provides surprising insights into how much children ...

Study suggests people dislike you more for humblebragging than for regular boasting

January 12, 2018
A team of researchers from Harvard University and UNC-Chapel Hill has conducted a study regarding humblebragging—in which a person boasts about an achievement but tries to make it sound less boastful by minimizing it—and ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.