Strand of hair could be key to diagnosis, prevention of depression in children

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A single lock of hair could one day be key in the diagnosis and prevention of depression an other mental health disorders in children, according to a study by researchers at The Ohio State University.

The study examined cortisol levels in the hair of teens. The researchers searched for potential relationships between the concentration of the stress hormone cortisol in the hair and teenagers’ depression symptoms. The researchers found that high cortisol levels corresponded to a higher likelihood of depression and that there was a connection between low cortisol levels and mental health issues.

Researchers in the past have used cortisol levels in mental health studies to examine causes, but few have examined cortisol specifically as a predictor of depression. And while data from 2016 shows that nearly one in eight adolescents have battled a major depressive episode, this latest finding speaks to the difficulties parents face in identifying a potentially serious mental health crisis versus typical teenage angst and the roller coaster ride of emotions that can come with puberty.

“It’d be really ideal to have an objective measurement, because using subjective measures of stress is problematic, particularly with children and teens,” says lead author Jodi Ford, associate professor of nursing at OSU, in a statement.

For the study, Ford and her team recruited 432 children between 11 and 17 years old. Participants had depression levels measured from a questionnaire they completed. They were asked to rate experiences in a variety of areas, such as how often they feel their life has been a failure or that people have been unfriendly to them.

The children also contributed hair samples for the research. A three-centimeter sample was suffice in most cases, enough to determine cortisol levels of participants from the previous three months. The researchers then made the surprising correlation to having low or high cortisol levels when comparing the results to the questionnaires.

“This study opens up a lot of future research questions and illustrates that the relationship between cortisol levels and depression isn’t necessarily a linear one,” says Ford. “It may be that low cortisol is bad and high cortisol is bad and there’s a middle level that is normal. It’s hard to know why this is without more research, but it’s possible that there’s a blunting of the stress response in some people, lowering cortisol production or changing how it is processed. Maybe the body is not using cortisol in the way that it should in some cases.”

Though the results show promise as an inexpensive way — about $35 per test — for parents and doctors to better monitor children’s mental health, Ford says more testing is needed.

In the meantime, there was one takeaway the study also found that could prove as a valuable nugget for parents: children who felt better supported by their families at home showed notably lower levels of depressive symptoms compared to participants who felt they had less support.

The study is published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

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