A key to understanding our mental health may be running through our blood. Researchers from the Indiana School of Medicine say they’ve developed a new method to diagnose anxiety and help pinpoint effective therapies—all via a blood test.
A research team led by Alexander Niculescu, MD, Ph.D. set out to develop an objective way to assess anxiety. Anxiety disorders are currently underdiagnosed, which can negatively affect the lives of those who live with them. Current methods for diagnosing anxiety include assessing a person’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and behaviors, which study authors say is insufficient and can result in people living with anxiety for years before receiving a diagnosis and treatment.
In a statement to the Indiana School of Medicine, Niculescu notes that people with undiagnosed anxiety may also mistake symptoms of a panic attack for those of a heart attack, ending up in the emergency room. And some medications commonly used to treat anxiety can be addictive and have troubling side effects.
“Many people are suffering from anxiety, which can be very disabling and interfere with daily life,” said Niculescu. “The current approach is to talk to people about how they feel to see if they could be on medications, but some medications can be addictive and create more problems. We wanted to see if our approach to identify blood biomarkers could help us match people to existing medications that will work better and could be a non-addictive choice.”
Niculescu has already developed blood tests to diagnose and identify treatments for depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and pain. He used his previous research to inform his study on anxiety and analyze genetic biomarkers in the study participants’ blood.
Study participants got a blood test every three to six months, or whenever hospitalized. Researchers then examined their blood, identifying a person’s current state of anxiety and their risk of experiencing higher anxiety levels in the future.
Niculescu told the Indiana University School of Medicine that he hopes the blood test for anxiety can be used in conjunction with other blood tests he has developed to help people get a comprehensive look at their mental health.
“Overall, this work is a major step forward towards better understanding, diagnosing, and treating anxiety disorders,” said the study’s authors. “We hope that our trait biomarkers for future risk may be useful in preventive approaches, before the full-blown disorder manifests itself (or re-occurs).”