New science on depression

It's not a secret (finally, thankfully) that America has a depression problem. About 1 in 10 Americans suffer from depression at some point in their lives, while the number is about 1 in 4 globally. It's that "at some point in their lives" part that I think gets overlooked a lot of the time. Depression is different for different people; some are chronically depressed and may have dysthymia, making them fatigued and sad most of the time, while others go through periods of ups and downs or get depressed only during certain times of the year.

Fortunately, and thanks in part to the battle against mental health stigma, researchers are learning a lot about what may cause depression in the first place. This will hopefully lead to a better understanding of its spectrum and how to help people manage (or maybe even cure) it.

Two studies that have come out this year have been particularly interesting to me:

A blood test that could diagnose depression.

This study, published in May in PLOS ONE, suggests that it may be possible to determine via blood test whether a person's sells have a difficult time accepting serotonin molecules. Low serotonin levels are often connected with depression, though it's not clear whether this is a cause or a symptom. The researchers, from the Medical University of Vienna, say it might be possible to monitor a person's blood count for serotonin levels, the same way blood count is monitored for other health and disease markers, making it easier to diagnose and treat depression.

Could a single protein be the cause?

While a lot of research has focused on serotonin, scientists at the Icahn School of Medicine have isolated another molecule that might play a big part – beta-catenin, or β-catenin. Issues with this molecule are often found in connection with mental illnesses, and the Icahn scientists recently published findings in Nature showing that β-catenin malfunctions might determine how a depressed person's brain deals (or doesn't) with stress. In a study, mice that fared better under social stress tended to have more active β-catenin in their brains than those that showed symptoms of depression.

Mental illness runs in my family, and I have had my own experiences with it, so I'm naturally interested in this kind of science. But as people begin to speak out more and more mental illness and it becomes clear just how prevalent it is, the ability to identify and fight it is increasingly relevant to all of us.