I recently read an article that outlined a new test designed to predict major depression among teen boys. The test would require a simple saliva sample which would test for cortisol levels. Cortisol, commonly known in biology and medicine as “the stress hormone,” is a glucocorticoid that has profound effects throughout the body. It’s primary function in the body is to increase blood glucose levels, but it also suppresses the immune response, increases blood pressure, and a whole host of other physiologic responses we would normally associate with “fight or flight.”
The saliva test for cortisol would be done for young men if they exhibited mild symptoms of depression, and would predict the likelihood of the development of major depression. High levels of cortisol in combination with mild depression symptoms were 14x more likely to lead to major depression, according to the study. The researchers followed 1,800 teenagers ages 12-19, examining their cortisol levels and self-reported depression symptoms. They then tracked diagnosis of mental illness within the cohort for a period of 3 years.
The results of this study and the implications of the cortisol test in relation to depression are significant. Depression is often rather nebulous, and clinicians rely almost exclusively upon the patient’s subjective reporting of symptoms in order to make a diagnosis. The existence of a biomarker that can accurately predict major depressive disorders could help clinicians diagnose and treat depression earlier on or even delivery therapies targeted to help it from developing in the first place. It would be my fervent hope that if we can use this test to see who is at the highest risk for developing depression, we can use non-pharmacological interventions before a medication regimen is considered. Stress reduction techniques and dietary changes, perhaps in concert with some form of cognitive behavioral therapy, could help us avoid the use of antidepressants and other drugs with particularly nasty side effects.
To read the article about the study, here’s a link: