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Simple blood test shows promise in bipolar disorder diagnosis

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HQ Team

October 26, 2023: Researchers from the University of Cambridge have devised a new approach to enhance the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. They have developed a simple blood test that can identify biomarkers linked to the condition, potentially differentiating it from major depressive disorder. This method, combined with a digital mental health assessment, offers a more accurate diagnosis and quicker treatment, reducing the risk of misdiagnosis.

Bipolar disorder affects about 1% of the population, with up to 40% of patients being initially misdiagnosed as having major depressive disorder. Bipolar disorder involves periods of both low and high moods, making it challenging to distinguish from major depression, which primarily involves low mood.

“People with bipolar disorder will experience periods of low mood and periods of very high mood or mania,” said first author Dr Jakub Tomasik, from Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology.

“But patients will often only see a doctor when they’re experiencing low mood, which is why bipolar disorder frequently gets misdiagnosed as major depressive disorder.”

“When someone with bipolar disorder is experiencing a period of low mood, to a physician, it can look very similar to someone with major depressive disorder,” said Professor Sabine Bahn, who led the research.

“However, the two conditions need to be treated differently: if someone with bipolar disorder is prescribed antidepressants without the addition of a mood stabiliser, it can trigger a manic episode.”

Blood test as a diagnostic tool

The researchers conducted a study utilizing a blood test to diagnose bipolar disorder. The blood test, when used alone, could identify up to 30% of patients with bipolar disorder. However, it proved more effective when combined with a digital mental health assessment.

A simple blood test can be quicker and more accessible than traditional psychiatric assessments, which often involve long waiting times. It provides an objective and biological basis for diagnosis, reassuring patients that their condition is not merely psychological.

The researchers used samples and data from the Delta study, conducted in the UK between 2018 and 2020 who had received a diagnosis of major depressive disorder within the previous five years. The research involved over 3,000 participants who completed a comprehensive online mental health assessment covering various aspects relevant to mental health disorders. About 1,000 of these participants provided a dried blood sample for analysis. The data, including patient-reported information and biomarker test results, were then assessed to identify bipolar disorder.  241 participants were included in the study.

The analysis of the data revealed significant biomarker signals associated with bipolar disorder. These biomarkers were primarily linked to manic symptoms. The combination of patient-reported information and the blood test improved diagnostic accuracy, especially in cases where the diagnosis was less evident.

Path to faster diagnosis and treatment

A combination of the online assessment and the blood test is considered ideal for diagnosing bipolar disorder, as they complement each other. The blood test not only enhances diagnostic capabilities but also has the potential to identify new drug targets for mood disorders, leading to improved treatments.

“The online assessment was more effective overall, but the biomarker test performs well and is much faster,” said Bahn. “A combination of both approaches would be ideal, as they’re complementary.”

“In addition to the diagnostic capabilities of biomarkers, they could also be used to identify potential drug targets for mood disorders, which could lead to better treatments. It’s an exciting time to be in this area of research,” said Bahn.

Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialization arm, has filed a patent for this research.

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