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Blood test developed to better diagnose, treat anxiety

FILE - In this Tuesday, May 5, 2020, file photo, a health worker draws blood from a patient in DeLand, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
FILE - In this Tuesday, May 5, 2020, file photo, a health worker draws blood from a patient in DeLand, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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Researchers have developed a blood test for anxiety, giving doctors a new tool that they say can be used to tailor more effective treatment.

This development is the latest in a series of breakthroughs the team has made using blood tests to help diagnose mental health conditions, according to Dr. Alexander Niculescu.

The biomarkers are physical manifestations of mental health struggles and can be used to assess a mental health issue, guide treatment and track progress.

The brain and the body are one," Niculescu said. "They're interconnected."

Niculescu, professor of psychiatry and medical neuroscience at Indiana University School of Medicine, began this study nearly two decades ago and has since tracked around 1,200 psychiatric patients to develop blood tests for depression, suicidality risk, stress, pain and more.

The anxiety test is the latest, with research published this month.

"A lot of other fields, like cancer and so on, have been ahead of mental health in terms of developing molecular tests to properly assess patients, match them with treatment, monitor disease progression, (and) response to treatment," he said. "So, we wanted to do something similar for mental health.

"It's much tougher to do it for mental health,” he added, “because you cannot biopsy the target organ, the brain."

The goal is to swap the “usual trial-and-error process” used for mental health conditions with one that’s more objective and “evidence-driven.”

“To this day, in routine practice, you have to rely on what the patient is telling you and of your clinical impression,” Niculescu said of diagnosing mental health issues. “That's an imperfect way of doing things. You miss things.”

These tests can potentially save a patient from unnecessarily being prescribed addictive drugs, Niculescu said.

“A lot of people get put on opiates, and we ended up with this opioid epidemic,” he said.

Sometimes, the tests might even show over-the-counter supplements will help the patient more, Niculescu said.

A lab and diagnostic company, MindX Sciences, and the Life x Mind tracking app were both born out of the research.

Niculescu said they needed a practical way to roll out these blood tests, and now they're offering seven tests that can be ordered by a patient's doctor.

But the tests are self-pay, and the technology is expensive, Niculescu said.

“So, my wish and mission with them for the next year or two is to get them reimbursed by Medicare and by insurance companies,” he said. “Then more people can afford them.”

He said the majority of mental health patients are seen, especially initially, by primary care doctors. That’s the “natural ecosystem for this type of work.”

And these tests could become an important part of routine preventive care, he said.

“Just like you would do your annual blood test for diabetes screening, for prostate screening, for everything else,” Niculescu said.

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