Scientists find revolutionary ‘biomarker’ for clinical depression in teenage boys

Young men who have depressive symptoms and high cortisol levels are the most susceptible

A revolutionary way of identifying the teenage boys who are most likely to develop clinical depression in later life has been discovered by researchers at the University of Cambridge.

Predicting those who may be at risk of depressive symptoms has been puzzling doctors for decades but now scientists have found the first biomarker – or biological signpost – for clinical depression.

Teenage boys who have a combination of depressive symptoms and raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol are up to 14 times more likely to develop clinical depression than those who show neither trait.

Around one in six people suffer from clinical depression at some point in their lives and three-quarters of mental health diseases start before people are 24 years old. Researchers believe this latest discovery, published last night in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), could help target treatment and mean doctors can intervene earlier.

Professor Ian Goodyer from the University of Cambridge, who led the study, said: “Depression is a terrible illness that will affect as many as 10 million people in the UK at some point in their lives. Through our research, we now have a very real way of identifying those teenage boys most likely to develop clinical depression.

“This will help us strategically target preventions and interventions at these individuals and hopefully help to reduce their risk of serious episodes of depression and their consequences in adult life.”

At the moment the indicators work only for men because cortisol levels are higher in women and they have not found an equivalent way of predicting outcomes for female patients.

Researchers analysed several early morning saliva samples taken within a week from more than 1,850 teenagers – and did the same again a year later. The samples showed cortisol levels were stable over the year and were then combined with self-reports about symptoms of depression.

The teenagers were then divided into four groups, ranging from group one, who had normal levels of morning cortisol and low symptoms of depression over time, through to group four, who had elevated levels of morning cortisol and high symptoms of depression over time.

Teenage boys in group four were 14 times more likely to develop clinical depression than those in the first group. 

Teenage girls in this fourth group were only four times more likely than those in the first group to develop major depression – and were no more likely to develop the condition than those with either high morning cortisol or symptoms of depression alone. The findings suggest gender differences in how depression develops.

Paul Jenkins, chief executive of Rethink Mental Illness, said: “These findings represent a major development in our understanding of depression among teenage boys. When young people receive early intervention treatment, they have a much better chance of getting better and avoiding long-term mental health problems.

“The prospect of identifying boys at risk at an earlier stage, should enable us to make a big step forward in successfully treating serious mental illness.”

John Williams, head of neuroscience and mental health at the Wellcome Trust, which funded the research, said: “Progress in identifying biological markers for depression has been frustratingly slow, but now we finally have a biomarker for clinical depression. The approach taken by Professor Goodyer’s team may yet yield further biomarkers. It also gives tantalising clues about the gender differences in the causes and onset of depression.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Life and Style
tech
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas