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3 Ways Depression May Be Diagnosed in the Future


There is currently no test to diagnose depression — it all comes down to doctors and mental health professionals comparing your symptoms to the official diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder. But that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying to find a more accurate and easier way to diagnose depression.

Past research shows that depression, like most mental health conditions, is complex. Your symptoms can be related to stress in your life, your family history and genetics, and biological systems in your brain and body. This means researchers are looking at many different areas to find out just how depression works and find faster and better ways to diagnose and treat the condition.

While most new theories on how to determine if you have depression aren’t ready to be used yet and require more research, it’s still interesting to see what could be on the horizon. Here are three recent studies that show promise for the future of getting a mental health diagnosis.

1. Testing Your Hair

Your hair may seem an unlikely source of getting a diagnosis, however, new research suggests the stress hormone levels in your hair may be linked to depression. The study, conducted by researchers at Ohio State University, measured cortisol levels in the hair of 432 adolescents using a three-centimeter hair sample, which accounts for three months of data. Cortisol is one of your primary stress hormones, and this research shows at very high or low levels, there may be a connection with depression symptoms.

While testing hair samples would be relatively affordable — a cost of around $35 — the concept needs a lot more examination. Researchers did find a connection between high and low cortisol levels and depression, but only in one way they analyzed the data. A more straightforward look at the data didn’t show any significant connection. In addition to reproducing the results of this study, researchers need to determine how cortisol levels are connected with depression (if any) before your doctor could use the test.

 2. Speech Detection

Research about language and predicting mental illness using social media has grown in popularity. A recent study published in the Journal of Biomedical and Health Informatics showed artificial intelligence could also predict depression and anxiety when children talk. In the study, researchers asked young people to give a three-minute speech designed to make them feel stressed and judged. Using a computer algorithm, the researchers then analyzed the children’s’ speech and could correctly determine which kids had depression or anxiety 80% of the time.

This study showed children with depression spoke using a lower-pitched and monotone voice and had a higher voice response when the time’s up buzzer sounded. The authors of the paper highlighted how alternative methods for diagnosing depression can be especially important since children don’t always have the words to describe their symptoms. While the study’s results may be one way to help diagnose depression sooner for kids, additional research is needed.

3. Sleeping Heart Rate

If you’re struggling with depression, experts may be able to diagnose the condition by measuring your heart rate. A study published in BMC Psychiatry measured differences in participants’ heart rate patterns while they were asleep, comparing 664 people with depression to 529 without depression. Using this data, a computer-programmed algorithm was able to predict which patients had depression in a new group of participants with nearly 80% accuracy.

The researchers noted this is the first time heart rate patterns were linked to depression. The results suggest a link between your autonomic nervous system, which controls functions in your body you don’t have to think about, including your heart rate, digestion and body temperature. However, before your heart rate can be used to diagnose depression, researchers first need to understand why depression causes changes in your heart rate and demonstrate the computer program they created works over and over again.

The Mighty is working on a condition guide for the depression community. Please help us by taking this survey. Thank you!

Additional reporting by Rajitmeet Singh, The Mighty’s Summer 2019 news intern.

Header image via Feodora Chiosea/Getty Images