Anxiety Unveiled: The Power of a Blood Draw
Issue 13, Volume 113
By Erica Wong
You are sitting in class, running through your to-do list in your head. As your mental checklist grows longer and longer, you process how many tasks you need to accomplish today. Suddenly, you feel a wave of panic: your heart starts beating faster and faster and your breath becomes shallow as you attempt to compose yourself. No matter how hard you try, it feels like you cannot stop these symptoms. While there is no real diagnosis, these sudden, intense feelings most likely indicate an anxiety attack.
Anxiety attacks are episodes of panic that occur moments after a stressful situation, whether it is an intense or minute stressor. While feeling anxious is normal, having frequent anxiety attacks is a sign to seek professional treatment. Oftentimes, patients with these symptoms are diagnosed with anxiety disorder, a condition characterized by frequent panic attacks that affects nearly 36 percent of American teens.
Anxiety disorder can manifest in a diverse range of symptoms. It can range from mildly disruptive symptoms––like moderate sweating––to dehabilitating symptoms––like an inability to sleep or eat out of fear. Though anxiety disorder can drastically limit functionality, only 36.9 percent seek cognitive treatment, mainly due to the long diagnosis times. Anxiety disorder diagnoses often require multiple therapy sessions. Cognitive diagnosis can also be expensive, costing anywhere from $100 to $200 per session.
For those looking for a cheaper, faster diagnosis plan, the recent creation of the BioM-95 blood test is a notable option. Developed by Dr. Alexander Niculescu and his research team at the Indiana University of Medicine, the BioM-95 is a blood test that determines if a patient has specific anxiety-associated biomarkers, which are measurable patterns within the body. Patients complete the blood test when their anxiety disorder begins to significantly disrupt their life. Essentially, the BioM-95 test uses biomarkers to diagnose a patient’s current state of anxiety and matches them with a medication, determining the most effective treatment plan.
BioM-95 works by searching the bloodstream for the 95 different RNA biomarkers commonly found in patients with anxiety––specifically the GAD1, NTRK3, ADRA2A, FZD10, GRK4, and SLC6A4 genes. These biomarkers were identified through a complex, four-step process to pinpoint their connections to anxiety. The researchers first tested individuals with psychiatric disorders to determine the blood-gene expression changes between self-reported low and high anxiety states. These changes helped the researchers create a list of biomarkers using a Convergent Functional Genomics Approach, a data analysis that compares genes between large groups of humans and animals. The team then confirmed their top biomarkers and prioritized the cohorts of patients with clinically diagnosed severe anxiety. Eventually, they pinpointed the most prominent genes associated with anxiety disorder—the reference for the biomarkers.
The biomarkers present in nearly all three studies were then tested in a clinical setting to determine if they could predict future anxiety development and severity. Working with these data results, Dr. Niculescu and his team developed an approach using liquid biopsies––the sampling of non-solid biological tissue––to identify gene expression markers that could track the severity of anxiety and match patients to a treatment regimen. This blood test can quickly determine a personalized diagnosis and treatment plan for those with anxiety and is cheaper than traditional cognitive therapy diagnosis methods.
The BioM-95 test is not foolproof; though it can determine quick treatments for those who do not have time for cognitive therapy, there are drawbacks. Blood tests are objective, providing genetic test results rather than taking into consideration a patient’s symptoms or personal experiences. While BioM-95 can diagnose a patient, it could potentially miss diagnoses in individuals without genetic markers for anxiety. Psychologists acknowledge the enduring effectiveness of cognitive therapy, which allows for the examination of the scope of anxiety disorder and accounts for traumatic experiences. Moreover, anxiety disorder treatment is unique for each person; for example, medication treatment may not work for those who suffer from stress-induced anxiety caused by something like the recent death of a family member.
Additionally, with this line of testing, it is probable that some individuals may be misdiagnosed. Those genetically disposed to anxiety do not always have the disorder and vice versa. Misdiagnosis is a dangerous possibility, as prescribed drugs like benzodiazepines are associated with an increased risk of addiction. Despite these ramifications, this test could be vital for the future of medicine.
At Stuyvesant––a highly stressful environment––many of us struggle with some form of anxiety. The BioM-95 test could identify genetic markers putting us at increased risk of developing a serious anxiety disorder, allowing us to take more precautions in order to avoid a mental health crisis. Perhaps we, too, could temper the raging stress within our heads through this new, innovative approach for diagnosing anxiety.