According to a survey from the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 11.2% of teens in the US aged between 13 and 18 years have suffered from severe depression at some point in their lives. Now, researchers from the UK have discovered the first biomarker that could predict the likelihood of clinical depression in teenage boys.

The research team, led by Prof. Ian Goodyer of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, says the discovery could lead to a reduction in the number of people suffering from depression by ensuring the disorder is treated early.

To reach their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the investigators collected saliva samples from hundreds of teenage boys and girls.

The researchers measured the levels of cortisol – a stress hormone – in the saliva samples, and the teenagers were required to self-report any symptoms of depression.

Based on cortisol levels and depressive symptoms, the investigators divided the teenagers into four groups.

The teenagers were followed up for between 12 and 36 months, after which time the investigators were able to determine which group would be the most likely to develop clinical depression, among other psychiatric disorders.

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Researchers found that teenage boys with depressive symptoms and high cortisol levels in their saliva were 14 times more likely to develop depression than boys who had neither.

The research team found that among boys, those with depressive symptoms and high levels of cortisol in their saliva were 14 times more likely to develop clinical depression, compared with boys who had low levels of cortisol and no depressive symptoms.

However, girls with depressive symptoms and high cortisol levels were only four times more likely to develop clinical depression, compared with girls with no symptoms of depression and low cortisol levels.

The investigators say these findings suggests that gender differences play a part in the development of clinical depression.

Furthermore, they say the newly discovered biomarker – high cortisol levels and symptoms of depression – could help primary care services to identify boys who are at high risk for depression.

They hope the findings will also lead to new public mental health strategies for teenage boys.

Commenting on the findings, Prof. Goodyer says:

Through our research, we now have a very real way of identifying those teenage boys most likely to develop clinical depression.

This will help us strategically target preventions and interventions at these individuals and hopefully help reduce their risk of serious episodes of depression and their consequences in adult life.”

Dr. Matthew Owens, of the University of Cambridge and co-author of the study, says the new biomarker could offer a more personalized approach to combatting depression risk in teenage boys.

“This could be a much needed way of reducing the number of people suffering from depression, and in particular stemming a risk at a time when there has been an increasing rate of suicide amongst teenage boys and young men,” he adds.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), teenage boys are more likely die from suicide than girls, with 81% of deaths in those aged between 10 and 24 years occurring in boys.

Dr. Owens spoke to Medical News Today about the direction of future research.

“Future work should concentrate on a more comprehensive understanding of depression. There are likely to be other so-called biomarkers that are specific for depression as well as others for other psychiatric diagnoses,” he said.

“In the case of our current study, it is also important to understand how cortisol contributes to the development and maintenance of depression and whether it can successfully be used as a target for prevention and treatment.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that boys who think they are underweight are more likely to suffer from depression, compared with other boys.