10:35pm Tuesday 19 September 2017

Search for depression biomarkers could improve diagnosis

Researchers at UOW have embarked on a study to identify biomarkers for depression, which could lead to simpler diagnosis and more personalised treatments.

The study aims to develop an objective diagnostic test that can be easily administered by GPs, which researchers say could help reduce the stigma associated with depression, a condition that affects one in seven Australians during their lifetime.

Cognitive Neuroscientist Dr David Camfield in association with Professor Rodney Croft from the School of Psychology and the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI) are leading the study.

They are currently recruiting patients in the Illawarra region to help progress the research.

Dr Camfield and his team plan to use electrophysiology in order to look for differences in brain activity that may be associated with depression. 

Study participants will be exposed to visual and auditory stimuli while wearing a lycra cap fitted with electrodes capable of picking up the minute electrical signals in the brain. The researchers will then compare scans of people with depression and those without to see if there are any differences.

They will then re-test a selection of these patients later in the year following on from treatment with cognitive-behavioural and/or anti-depressant therapy, in order to determine if treatment will result in changes to the biomarker measures of brain activity.

Dr Camfield said he hopes the study will help develop an objective diagnostic test that can be easily administered by GPs.

“Depression is currently diagnosed via structured interview and questionnaires. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, we are trying to develop a more objective measure that can back up the results of the interview and to pin point how severe the depression is,” Dr Camfield said, adding that some people hold back in doctor-patient interviews because they don’t want to burden their doctor.

“We also hope to identify differences in the types of depression people experience. For example, the brain scans may reveal a specific pattern for people who have a problem with serotonin, which we know is best treated with anti-depressants.”

“At the moment it’s really a matter of trial and error with medication, but hopefully in the future we will have a standardised test that will take the guess work out.”

Dr Camfield said having an objective test may also help reduce the stigma associated with depression. 

“People don’t think twice about seeking help as soon as possible for health conditions such as diabetes or arthritis, yet when it comes to depression there is often a subtle sense of failure in their inability to cope emotionally, as well as a sense of doubt about whether they actually require treatment. 

“An objective test would be very helpful, in giving people some confidence that they are not just imagining the way that they are feeling, you know, that something is really wrong and needs to be put right again.”

“We are hoping to get a clearer picture of what’s going on in the brain of depressed people. No one has really figured it out yet.”

The study will also look at clinically significant anxiety and changes in cortisol response associated with depression.

The researchers are currently looking two groups of participants – those who are healthy as well as depressed participants – of all ages to take part in the study. A formal diagnosis of depression is not required. If you have lately been suffering from low mood then you are most welcome to enquire. For further information please contact Dr David Camfield on camfield@uow.edu.au or +61 2 4221 4358.


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