Scientists at the University of Eastern Finland say they have found plasma protein-based biomarkers capable of identifying adolescents at risk of developing mental health issues. The study “Plasma proteomics discovery of mental health risk biomarkers in adolescents” appears in Nature Mental Health.

“An estimated 10–20% of adolescents experience mental health conditions, and most of them remain underdiagnosed and undertreated,” write the investigators. “Discovering new susceptibility biomarkers is therefore important for identifying individuals at high risk of developing mental health problems, and for improving early prevention. Here we aimed to discover plasma protein-based susceptibility biomarkers in children/adolescents aged 11–16 years at risk of developing mental health issues.”

In the work carried out in the research group of Katja Kanninen, PhD, PhD, the team used self-reported Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) scores to evaluate mental health risk in participants aged between 11 and 16 years. Blood sample analyses showed that 58 proteins were significantly associated with the SDQ score. Bioinformatic analyses were used to identify the biological processes and pathways linked with the identified plasma protein biomarker candidates.

Key enriched pathways related to these proteins included immune responses, blood coagulation, neurogenesis, and neuronal degeneration. The study relied on a symbolic regression algorithm to create predictive models that best separate low and high SDQ score groups.

Plasma biomarker studies in mental disorders are an emerging field, notes Kanninen.

“Alterations in plasma proteins have been previously associated with various mental health disorders, such as depression, schizophrenia, psychotic disorders, and bipolar disorders. Our study supports these earlier findings and further revealed that specific plasma protein alterations could indicate a high risk for mental dysfunction in adolescents,” she continues.

This pilot study will be followed by more specific investigations of the potential biomarkers for identification of individuals at risk of mental health problems, opening a new avenue for advancements in adolescent mental health care, say the researchers.

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