With your help, the ROOTS project has made important scientific findings.
In teenagers, exercise shown not to affect the development of depressive symptoms
By attaching a heart-rate and movement sensor to teenagers in ROOTS for 4 days, we reliably measured their physical activity. We found no differences in rates of depression at 17 among teenagers who exercised a lot, medium or little when they were 14. This finding does not mean exercise is unimportant to mental health, instead, it informs policy makers that to prevent depression in teenagers, we should invest in other areas.
Biomarker for clinical depression in teenage boys identified
Depression increases in the teenage years for girls and boys, but less is known about depression in boys. We recently identified a biological predictor for the development of clinical depression in teenage boys already suffering from milder depression symptoms. The ‘biomarker’ is one of the hormones produced by our adrenal glands under stress: cortisol. Boys who showed high cortisol as well as high depression symptoms were 14 times more likely to develop clinical depression. This suggests that professionals could offer a more personalised approach to helping boys at risk for depression. This comes at a time of increasing rates of suicide amongst teenage boys and young men.
A cognitive biomarker for adolescents at high risk of depression and anxiety
We used a computerised test to investigate differences in how teenagers respond to ‘emotional words’.
The test asked participants to state whether words presented on the screen were ‘positive’, ‘negative’ or ‘neutral’. Teenagers also underwent genetic testing and environmental assessments. Teenagers with a variation of one gene (called the serotonin transporter) as well as negative experiences in their childhood processed emotional words differently.
This research could lead to inexpensive cognitive tests to screen for mental illnesses, particularly in people identified as high social and genetic risk. This opens up the possibility of identifying individuals at greatest risk and helping them with techniques to process emotions more easily.
New ways of measuring mental health problems
In clinics, mental health problems are often assessed using ‘diagnoses’ which assign a person to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ category. Diagnoses are used this way in most areas of medicine to decide what treatment a person needs.
However, scientists such as us, aim to identify causes of mental health problems so we can prevent and treat them with new or improved methods. This involves detailed investigations of environments and biology such as genes and the brain.
To relate biology to our thoughts and behaviour, we need new measurements we can use in place of diagnoses. We have run statistical tests on ROOTS data that have produced ‘new’ ways of defining mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and psychosis. We will relate these new techniques to potential biological causes of mental health problems.