Researchers at the University of Cambridge have unveiled a promising method to enhance the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Using a combination of an online psychiatric assessment and a simple blood test, they aim to reduce the high rate of misdiagnoses associated with this condition.
The team from Cambridge utilised both digital mental health assessments and blood tests to diagnose patients with bipolar disorder. A significant number of these individuals had previously been wrongly diagnosed with major depressive disorder. According to the findings, using the blood test alone could accurately diagnose up to 30% of bipolar disorder patients. But when combined with the digital assessment, its effectiveness increased substantially.
Bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder, while distinct, share many overlapping symptoms. This similarity often leads to misdiagnoses. Dr Jakub Tomasik, the study’s lead author, explains that bipolar disorder patients will experience both low and high mood phases. However, they often seek medical attention only during their low moods, which closely resemble the symptoms of major depressive disorder. Consequently, bipolar disorder is frequently mistaken for the latter. The distinction between the two is crucial, as they require different treatment approaches.
The gold standard for diagnosing bipolar disorder remains a full psychiatric assessment. Yet, these evaluations often come with prolonged waiting times and can be time-consuming. Tomasik emphasises the importance of the new diagnostic method: “The ability to diagnose bipolar disorder with a simple blood test could ensure that patients get the right treatment the first time and alleviate some of the pressures on medical professionals.”
The research utilised samples and data from the UK’s Delta study, conducted between 2018 and 2020. Over 3,000 participants, previously diagnosed with major depressive disorder, underwent an extensive online mental health assessment. Approximately one-third of them sent dried blood samples, which were then analysed for over 600 different metabolites.
The combined data demonstrated a significant biomarker signal for bipolar disorder. Importantly, these biomarkers were primarily linked to lifetime manic symptoms. The combination of patient-reported information and the biomarker test markedly improved diagnostic outcomes, especially in ambiguous cases.
The researchers are optimistic about the potential applications of their findings. Beyond diagnostics, the identified biomarkers could also pave the way for the development of more effective treatments for mood disorders. Professor Sabine Bahn, who spearheaded the research, expressed excitement over the prospects of this area of study.
Cambridge Enterprise has filed a patent on this groundbreaking research. The study was made possible with the support of the Stanley Medical Research Institute and Psyomics, a company co-founded by Professor Bahn.
Following this announcement, Bipolar UK’s CEO, Simon Kitchen, expressed cautious optimism about its implications for the bipolar community. He highlighted the potential of this blood test to revolutionise the diagnosis pathway, potentially reducing the current average delay to diagnosis from its current 9.5 years. He also emphasised the importance of quicker diagnosis for the well-being of patients.
But Kitchen also raised concerns regarding the practical implementation of the test within the NHS and the provision of necessary resources and support.
The development of a blood test for bipolar disorder diagnosis is a significant step forward in mental health research. Its potential to reduce misdiagnoses and ensure patients receive the right treatment promptly could have a profound impact on countless lives.