Beth Seibels of Birmingham is 62 years old and has suffered from anxiety and depression for more than 30 years. Two years ago, things got worse. For the first time, she was feeling suicidal.
“I was dying inside,” Seibels says. “You don’t see the other side. You believe that it’s going to be this way forever, and it causes such a hopelessness that you will never get your life back again.”
Seibels had seen countless counselors and psychiatrists and tried numerous different medications. Desperate, she even tried transcranial magnetic brain stimulation. Nothing was helping.
It wasn’t until Beth met psychiatrist Dr. Richard Shelton that her condition significantly improved.
Methods of screening for depression vary widely and most lab tests aren’t helpful. Patient interviews remain the most widely used tool a doctor has at his or her disposal. Many people go undiagnosed. But what if you could find out if you were at risk of becoming depressed or suicidal? Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham are working to do just that.
As the mother of three grown children and nine grandchildren, Seibels worries that they could become victim to this devastating illness.
According to Shelton, who heads the newly formed Mood Disorders Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, that’s a common concern among patients. It’s something he and his counterpart, neurobiologist Yogesh Dwivedi, are trying to address. Using predictive analytics, they are working to develop a blood test that can detect risk with the ultimate goal of identifying people before they become depressed or even suicidal.
While common for other types of medical conditions, this has rarely, if ever, been done for a mental health malady. Shelton says it’s achievable and that early detection can save lives.
“Once people are sick, it’s often hard to get them well again. And that’s true in cancer. That’s true in depression. That’s true for suicide,” says Shelton.
A blood test for depression already exists, but it can identify someone who’s already depressed. Similar to other medical conditions that use predictive analytics, Shelton’s plan is to refine and perfect the test.
“The work we are doing in the lab here – a blood test that we hope will ultimately help us to develop a way to detect who’s going to become depressed, and people who are going to become depressed who are likely to be suicidal in the future — it’s a big project,” says Shelton. “It involves a lot of complicated chemical analysis, but that’s really the long-term goal.”
The challenge he faces in the lab are thousands of tiny RNA sequences known as MicroRNAs – crucial players in gene expression and protein production. MicroRNAs can actually keep genes from expressing themselves, determining whether a particular protein will be produced. There are literally thousands of these MicroRNAs, and they are extremely sensitive to environmental effects. Shelton wants to understand how such factors, child abuse, chronic stress, death of a loved one, long-term changes in MicroRNAs.
Specifically, he wants to identify the smallest number of MicroRNAs that could be used to create a profile detectable in blood that can be extracted during a routine medical visit. This would ultimately allow clinicians to intervene before a patient becomes ill.
Longitudinal studies are currently underway. Shelton estimates developing the test could take as long as 30 years at his current funding level.