Saliva Test May Detect Depression in Teenage Boys

Published 02/19 2014 10:14AM

Updated 03/21 2014 10:18AM

It's not unusual for teenagers to go through challenging times as they mature into adulthood. The years between 13 and 20 are bursting with uncertainty and hormones. Most parents of a teen will tell you that there are times when the term "teenage angst" is an appropriate assessment of their child's mood.

But sometimes there's more to a teen's persistent sulking and troubles with school. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 50 American kids suffer from depression. And, 8.3 percent of teens suffer depression, for at least a year at a time, compared to about 5.3 percent of the general population. Many of these children will continue to experience depression later in life.

A new study says that a saliva test for teenage boys with mild symptoms of depression could help identify those who will later develop major depression.

Researchers measured the stress hormone cortisol in teenage boys and discovered that the ones with high levels coupled with mild depression symptoms were up to 14 times more likely to suffer from clinical depression as an adult, than those boys with low or normal cortisol levels.

While the test was tried on both teenage girls and boys, it was found to be more effective with the boys.

"This is the emergence of a new way of looking at mental illness," Joe Herbert of the University of Cambridge and one of the study authors said at a news conference on Monday. "You don't have to rely simply on what the patient tells you, but what you can measure inside the patient," he said.

Researchers observed more than 1,800 teenagers aged 12 to 19 and examined their cortisol levels with saliva tests. They also collected the teens' own reports of depression symptoms and tracked diagnoses of mental health disorders in them for up to three years later.

The boys who had high cortisol levels and mild depression symptoms were up to 14 times more likely to suffer from clinical depression when compared to other teens with normal levels, while girls with similarly elevated cortisol levels were only up to four times more likely to develop the condition.

Statistically, girls report suffering from depression more than boys, so why the difference in effectiveness in the saliva tests of the boys and girls tested?

"All hormones, including sexual hormones, influence brain function and behavior," said Dr. Carmine Pariante, a professor of biological psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London. He was not linked to the study.

Pariante said the gender-specific hormones - androgen for males and estrogen and progesterone for females - might react differently to cortisol and could explain the difference in risk for teenage boys and girls.

The saliva test could prove beneficial in helping teenage boys who are at risk for developing clinical depression, by targeting those teens early and providing psychological help before their depression progresses.

"This gives us a biological model to understand mental health problems the way we understand other medical conditions," Pariante said, comparing it to how doctors might diagnose a broken leg based on an X-ray or identify heart disease patients based on high blood pressure or cholesterol readings. "It will help us identify patients at risk so we can try to help them as soon as possible."

Sometimes it's difficult for parents or guardians to distinguish between the symptoms of mild depression and their teenager's typical up and down mood swings. lists these symptoms of depression for teens. There is also more information on their website about depression and teens that you may find helpful.

?       Sadness or hopelessness

?       Irritability, anger, or hostility

?       Tearfulness or frequent crying

?       Withdrawal from friends and family

?       Loss of interest in activities

?       Changes in eating and sleeping habits

?       Restlessness and agitation

?       Feelings of worthlessness and guilt

?       Lack of enthusiasm and motivation

?       Fatigue or lack of energy

?       Difficulty concentrating

?       Thoughts of death or suicide

If you're unsure if an adolescent in your life is depressed or just "being a teenager," consider how long the symptoms have been present, how severe they are, and how different the teen is acting from his or her usual self. While some "growing pains" are to be expected as teenagers grapple with the challenges of growing up, dramatic, long-lasting changes in personality, mood, or behavior are red flags of a deeper problem.

If you are concerned that your teen is experiencing depression, talk with your pediatrician or family doctor for a better understanding of what may be going on and references for mental health care.

The Cambridge study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

Sources: Alexandra Sifferlin,

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