In what could be an exciting breakthrough, a Cambridge University researcher, Dr Sabine Bahn has developed a blood test which looks for chemical signatures in the blood that can indicate if a mental health condition is likely to be present.
Dr Bahn’s research is based on a series of proteins found in people with bi-polar disorder. She chose to focus on this mental health condition as there is often a delay in diagnosis which can prolong the wait for best treatment.
Although her research is promising, these tests are years away from being proven effective enough to be made available to patients.
However pathology testing already helps people with mental health needs.
Patients diagnosed with a mental health condition may receive drug treatment such as antidepressant or antipsychotic medication. For example, lithium and valproate are sometimes used to stabilise moods.
As with all drugs, these can have unwanted physical side effects that can be monitored by blood tests. Dosages can be adjusted or medication changed to ensure the beneficial effects of the drug continue to outweigh the side effects.
Some drug therapies can increase appetite and cause weight gain in some patients. As part of monitoring their patient’s health, doctors may test for cholesterol and triglyceride levels to make sure the patient’s heart health isn’t at risk.
Mental health issues are often complex and may have other physical effects or related conditions. For example, a person with an extreme eating disorder or severe alcohol or drug addiction may experience malnutrition or organ damage as a result of poor diet. Pathology tests can identify the effects of nutritional deficiencies and measure damage to organs such as the liver and kidneys.
Dr Narelle Hadlow is a Pathologist at PathWest in Western Australia. She says,
“People often associate pathology tests with the management of physical conditions. However, pathology tests also provide vital information that can reassure doctors the patient is staying physically healthy throughout periods of long-term medication. They can also identify underlying physical causes of mental health symptoms.”
Pathology testing can also help doctors to look at underlying hormone imbalances that may cause emotional or behavioural symptoms. Hyperthyroidism is caused by an overproduction of a hormone and can create feelings of anxiety, sleeping problems and mood swings. Blood tests can alert a treating doctor to this and allow the patient to be put on the appropriate thyroid medication.