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Identifying and treating mental illnesses can be more difficult than with purely physical illnesses. For example, when a person has a high blood sugar, they have diabetes. The doctor does not need to wait twenty years for the complications of the disease to show up to make the diagnosis. Likewise, one does not need to wait for a stroke to happen but rather measure blood pressure to diagnose hypertension. So, would mental illness biomarkers be useful? There is often a stigma attached to mental health issues. Would that be an impediment to developing physical or chemical biomarkers to help treat mental illnesses?

Developing Mental Illness Biomarkers

A recently published study in Biological Psychiatry reports that brain imaging can provide biomarkers for mental illness. The work was with adolescents with mental illnesses. The researchers looked for indicators in brain images that would add diagnostic tools for mental illness that were not based on subjective assessments of patients. The data came from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. This included almost twelve thousand children who were nine or ten when the study began.

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Brain Images As Mental Illness Markers

The brain imaging in this study include rsFC or functional state resting imaging analysis. The idea was to observe the organization of brain circuits and their interactions over time. The researchers say that they identified a variant of brain connectivity that was positively related to cognitive functions and negatively related to psychopathology. As the study progressed the researchers were able to look at early scans and predict the evolution of mental heath issues over the following two years.  

Will Mental Illness Biomarkers Improve Diagnosis and Treatments?

We treat physical and mental health issues when they cause problems or when they will cause problems if ignored. Thus people modify their diets and take medicines to reduce their high blood pressure or high cholesterol. If mental illness biomarkers provide ways to predict mental illness, it is possible that there might be ways to prevent the progression of these conditions. For example, we know that individuals with PTSD are more likely to develop conditions like depression or substance abuse disorders. Being able to spot these conditions in their very earliest stages could conceivably lead to faster and more efficient treatment or even prevention.

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Who Gets to Know If a Person Is Predisposed to Mental Illness?

In this technologically advanced world we live in it is possible to study a person’s genes and predict various types of illness. Many people might be interested in knowing this information themselves. Most folks would not be pleased to find out that their employer, the government, or perfect strangers were in possession of such information. It occurs to us that mental illness biomarkers might fall into the same category. Who gets to know if a person is predisposed to mental illness? Can a person be refused employment on such a basis? Could a person be denied entry into the US military if they have biomarkers for mental illness? Or could this evidence be used to refuse a veteran treatment for such conditions because they were predisposed to have the problem no matter what happened later in their life?

The Issue of False Positives in Mental Illness Testing

Tests designed to predict anything are generally not perfect. For example, cardiac stress tests are meant to tell us if a person has coronary heart disease. However, in a significant number of female test subjects stress testing predicts coronary artery disease when none exists. Will biomarkers for mental illness get to the point where they are used to screening purposes? If that happens it will be important to know the degree to which this technology predicts mental illness that never happens. We know that two things affect how humans turn out in life. They are genetics and experience. People who grow up and live in difficult and unhealthy circumstances are often more likely to have problems not seen in others. It will be important to avoid having growing children stigmatized by “positive” mental illness biomarkers when they are never going to develop any serious mental health issues.

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