New Study Looks For Early Mental Health Risk Biomarkers In Teens

A new study published in the Journal of Nature Mental Health looked at plasma proteomics discovery of mental health risk biomarkers in adolescents.

“Our study primarily focused on discovering plasma protein-based susceptibility biomarkers that could indicate adolescents at risk of developing mental health issues,” study authors Katja M. Kanninen and Alexey Afonin from the University of Eastern Finland told us. “The central objective was to bridge the gap between the existing subjective measures, like the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), and more objective, biological indicators that could facilitate early diagnosis, and possibly, prevention of mental health complications in this pivotal age group.”

Drawing from existing literature, the researchers postulated that there might be discernible alterations in plasma proteins correlated with mental health risks in adolescents. Such associations have been observed in adult mental disorders like depression and bipolar disorders. They anticipated finding a similar pattern or a set of plasma protein alterations that would correspond with mental health challenges in adolescents.

“The motivation for the study stemmed from a concerning statistic – 10 to 20% of adolescents face mental health challenges, and a significant majority of these cases go undiagnosed,” Kanninen and Afonin told us. “In a world that’s increasingly acknowledging the importance of mental health, such a gap in early diagnosis, especially in a critical developmental stage like adolescence, needs urgent addressing. We envisioned a more scientific, objective method of early detection that could potentially change the trajectory of these adolescents.”

To put their theory to the test, the researchers employed untargeted plasma proteomics using the advanced LC-MS/MS technology. This allowed them to analyse the plasma of 91 adolescents from the Spanish WALNUTs cohort study in-depth. By correlating their proteomic data with the SDQ total scores, they aimed to map any significant protein alterations with self-reported mental health risks.

“Our study unveiled 58 proteins with significant associations to the SDQ scores,” Kanninen and Afonin told us. “The pathways related to immune responses, blood coagulation, neurogenesis, and neuronal degeneration were predominantly enriched. We were able to generate predictive models, that made it possible to narrow down the search for best biomarker even further. Several of our predictive models incorporated proteins with known ties to the central nervous system, probable biomarker candidates.”

While the hypothesis did anticipate certain associations, the depth and specificity of the findings, especially the predominant roles of pathways like immune responses and neurogenesis, were somewhat unexpected. These insights not only support the researchers’ hypothesis, but also open novel avenues for understanding the intricate biological underpinnings of adolescent mental health.

“The identified plasma biomarkers present a promising avenue for early detection,” Kanninen and Afonin told us. “But it’s crucial to underline that before these findings can be integrated into clinical settings, they need validation in larger, diverse cohorts. Further research will also be essential to discern whether these biomarkers truly predict a transition from a risk state to an actual clinical condition.”

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