Depression Could Finally Get as Much Biomedical Attention as Cancer

Posted on November 15, 2014

Photo: flickr

If the extent of human suffering were used to decide which diseases deserve the most medical attention, then depression would be near the top of the list. More than 350 million people are affected by depression, making it one of the most common disorders in the world. It is the biggest cause of disability, and as many as two-thirds of those who commit suicide have the condition.

But although depression is common, it is often ignored. Three-quarters of people with depression in the United Kingdom go undiagnosed or untreated - and even if the disorder is diagnosed, today's medications will work well for only about half of those who seek help. "It's unbelievable," says Tom Foley, a psychiatrist at Newcastle University, UK. "If that was the case in cancer care, it would be an absolute scandal."

In research, too, depression has failed to keep up with cancer. Cancer research today is a thriving field, unearthing vast catalogues of disease-associated mutations, cranking out genetically targeted therapies and developing sophisticated animal models. Research into depression, meanwhile, seems to have floundered: once-hopeful therapies have failed in clinical trials, genetic studies have come up empty-handed. The field is still struggling to even define the disease - and overcome the stigma associated with it.

Depression research also gets a great deal less funding than that gobbled up by cancer. The US National Institutes of Health pumped about $5.3 billion into cancer research in 2013 - a stark contrast to the $415 million it spent on depression research and the $2.2 billion on mental-health research as a whole.

Efforts are under way to change how depression is defined and diagnosed in research. Last year, Thomas Insel, head of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, pushed researchers funded by the institute to eschew classical psychiatric diagnoses, which tend to be indistinct and overlap. Instead, a study might group together patients with specific symptoms, such as anxiety or difficulty with social communication, that are linked to depression as well as to other psychiatric disorders.

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Category(s):Depression

Source material from Scientific American


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