University of Cambridge study: Saliva test may detect depression in kids

23 Feb

Both the culture and the economy are experiencing turmoil. For some communities, the unsettled environment is a new phenomenon, for other communities, children have been stressed for generations. According to the article, Understanding Depression which was posted at the Kids Health site:

Depression is the most common mental health problem in the United States. Each year it affects 17 million people of all age groups, races, and economic backgrounds.
As many as 1 in every 33 children may have depression; in teens, that number may be as high as 1 in 8.

Schools are developing strategies to deal with troubled kids.

Anna M. Phillips wrote the New York Times article, Calming Schools by Focusing on Well-Being of Troubled Students which describes how one New York school is dealing with its troubled children.

>Mark Ossenheimer, principal of the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx, threw out a name to add to the list of teenagers in trouble.
Several teachers and a social worker seated around a table in the school’s cramped administrative offices nodded in agreement. They had watched the student, who had a housebound parent who was seriously ill, sink into heavy depression. Another child seemed to be moving from apartment to apartment, showing up at school only sporadically. And then there was the one grappling with gender-identity issues. Soon the list had a dozen names of students who could shatter a classroom’s composure or a school windowpane in a second.
Convening the meeting was Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit organization that the young-but-faltering school in an impoverished neighborhood near the Bronx Zoo had brought in this year to try to change things.
“This is the condition our organization was created to solve,” said Dr. Pamela Cantor, Turnaround’s founder and president. “A teacher who works in a community like this and thinks that these children can leave their issues at the door and come in and perform is dreaming.”
In focusing on students’ psychological and emotional well-being, in addition to academics, Turnaround occupies a middle ground between the educators and politicians who believe schools should be more like community centers, and the education-reform movement, with its no-excuses mantra. Over the past decade, the movement has argued that schools should concentrate on what high-quality, well-trained teachers can achieve in classrooms, rather than on the sociological challenges beyond their doors.

One strategy in helping children to succeed is to recognize and treat depression.

Catherine de Lange reported in the New Scientist Health article, Spit test could allow depression screening at school:

A few globs of spit and a questionnaire could be all that’s needed to identify some teenagers who have a high risk of developing depression. That is the upshot of a study finding that teenage boys with elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as depressive symptoms, can be 14 times more likely to become depressed later on.
It’s the first biological flag to accurately predict the risk of an individual going on to develop depression, says Barbara Sahakian at the University of Cambridge, one of the study’s authors.
The finding could lead to new pharmacological treatments for depression and could change the way schools deal with the condition. Teenagers could be screened for the biomarker and those at risk provided with targeted treatments.
Early predictor
Around the world, depression is one of the leading causes of disability. It takes hold early in life: half of all cases begin by age 14, three-quarters by 24.
“Given that we know more teenagers are getting depressed, we should be looking actively for people who are developing problems and treating them early and effectively,” Sahakian says.
Her team measured morning levels of cortisol over three days in 660 teenagers aged between 13 and 18. Elevated levels of this hormone have previously been implicated in depression. The team also recorded any pre-clinical depressive symptoms the teens reported over a year, such as tearfulness or lack of motivation. The study was later repeated in a group of about 1200 teens.
Teenage boys who reported high levels of depressive symptoms, and had high levels of cortisol, were more likely to have become clinically depressed over the next three years than any other combination. Those in this high risk group were 14 times more likely to go on to develop depression than the lowest-risk group, those who had neither high levels of cortisol nor depressive symptoms. Seventeen per cent of teens fell into this group but cortisol levels were not more useful than depression symptoms alone in pinpointing at-risk girls.
School intervention
Sahakian says screening pupils would be easy to do and beneficial, even if there were social stigma associated with identifying people who had a high risk of developing depression. “It’s better than leaving them alone in their bedrooms to get worse and worse,” she says. Screening could be carried out using saliva samples collected over a few days and students could fill out the questionnaire by themselves.
A study in the BMJ in 2012 found that having a professional therapist teach cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques to an entire class was no more effective than having the teacher give their usual personal social and health education classes, in terms of the effect on pupils’ well-being. But the hope is that screening would allow for targeted treatment.
Talking therapies such as CBT may also not be the best thing for boys, says Sahakian, because boys tend to respond better to visual techniques.
Screening could be a better way to allocate limited resources, says Carmine Pariante of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London. Teenage years are a time of emotional turmoil, when pre-clinical symptoms of depression are likely to be common. “If you help all of the [people you see like this] you end up giving treatment and emotional support to those who might be alright,” he says.


Elevated morning cortisol is a stratified population-level biomarker for major depression in boys only with high depressive symptoms
1. Matthew Owensa,b,
2. Joe Herbertc,
3. Peter B. Jonesa,b,
4. Barbara J. Sahakiand,
5. Paul O. Wilkinsona,
6. Valerie J. Dunna,b,
7. Timothy J. Croudacee, and
8. Ian M. Goodyera,b,1
Author Affiliations
1. Edited by Bruce S. McEwen, The Rockefeller University, New York, NY, and approved January 10, 2014 (received for review October 4, 2013)
1. Abstract
2. Authors & Info
3. SI
4. Metrics
5. PDF
6. PDF + SI
Clinical depression is a severe and common illness, characterized primarily by persistent low mood and lack of pleasure in usually enjoyable activities, that results in significant impairment in everyday living. It also involves alterations in cognitive and hormonal functions. There is substantial variation between depressed individuals in terms of the causes and therapeutic response, making it difficult to identify those most likely to benefit from intervention and treatment. We derived subtypes of adolescents in the population based on different levels of the hormone cortisol and subclinical depressive symptoms. A group (17%) with both high levels of cortisol and depressive symptoms of both sexes had more depressed thinking. Boys in this group were at high risk for clinical depression.
Major depressive disorder (MD) is a debilitating public mental health problem with severe societal and personal costs attached. Around one in six people will suffer from this complex disorder at some point in their lives, which has shown considerable etiological and clinical heterogeneity. Overall there remain no validated biomarkers in the youth population at large that can aid the detection of at-risk groups for depression in general and for boys and young men in particular. Using repeated measurements of two well-known correlates of MD (self-reported current depressive symptoms and early-morning cortisol), we undertook a population-based investigation to ascertain subtypes of adolescents that represent separate longitudinal phenotypes. Subsequently, we tested for differential risks for MD and other mental illnesses and cognitive differences between subtypes. Through the use of latent class analysis, we revealed a high-risk subtype (17% of the sample) demarcated by both high depressive symptoms and elevated cortisol levels. Membership of this class of individuals was associated with increased levels of impaired autobiographical memory recall in both sexes and the greatest likelihood of experiencing MD in boys only. These previously unidentified findings demonstrate at the population level a class of adolescents with a common physiological biomarker specifically for MD in boys and for a mnemonic vulnerability in both sexes. We suggest that the biobehavioral combination of high depressive symptoms and elevated morning cortisol is particularly hazardous for adolescent boys.
• adolescence
gender differences
• 1To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:
• Author contributions: J.H., P.B.J., B.J.S., V.J.D., T.J.C., and I.M.G. designed research; V.J.D., J.H., P.B.J., T.J.C., M.O., and I.M.G. performed research; M.O., T.J.C., and I.M.G. analyzed data; and M.O., J.H., P.B.J., B.J.S., P.O.W., V.J.D., T.J.C., and I.M.G. wrote the paper.
• Conflict of interest statement: B.J.S. consults for Cambridge Cognition Ltd.
• This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.
• This article contains supporting information online at

If you or your child needs help for depression or another illness, then go to a reputable medical provider. There is nothing wrong with taking the steps necessary to get well.


Schools have to deal with depressed and troubled children

School psychologists are needed to treat troubled children

Battling teen addiction: ‘Recovery high schools’


1. About.Com’s Depression In Young Children

2. Psych Central’s Depression In Young Children

3. Psychiatric News’ Study Helps Pinpoint Children With Depression

4. Family Doctor’s What Is Depression?

5. WebMD’s Depression In Children

6. Healthline’s Is Your Child Depressed?

7. Medicine.Net’s Depression In Children

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3 Responses to “University of Cambridge study: Saliva test may detect depression in kids”

  1. gettingwell4 May 31, 2015 at 1:33 pm #

    The researchers stated that a physical effect as common as visible sweat was a biomarker that predicted where the teenagers were going with their lives regardless of when the condition started. In my opinion, the researchers didn’t prove their case that “elevated morning cortisol” adequately identified teenagers who needed help.

    Cortisol is an effect of multiple potential causes, including stress, which itself is often an effect of multiple potential causes. One common cause of stress and its cortisol byproduct is diet, for example, when a person consumes caffeine.

    By disregarding the study’s main subjects’ histories, the study could not prove causes for any present or future effects. A correlation is the best that could ever be shown by an autobiographic memory test, in my opinion. And the study’s main finding hinged on this third-order observational method of trying to figure out what’s going on in the subjects’ brains.

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