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Reported May 5, 2009

Diagnosis Weapons

INDIANAPOLIS (Ivanhoe Newswire) -- About 26 percent of adults in the United States suffer from a mental illness. That's about one in every four people. Getting the right treatment can make all the difference for patients, but that can't happen without an accurate diagnosis. Now, there are two new ways doctors are helping patients figure out what's wrong.

Elisabeth Prescott knows what it feels like to live with bipolar disorder.

"Worthlessness, hopelessness, being a burden to other people," Prescott told Ivanhoe.

She also knows what it's like to be misdiagnosed. For six years, doctors mistakenly treated her for depression. The meds they prescribed made her illness worse.

"They send you to places that you would never want to be," Prescott recalled.

She ran away, struggled with raising her children and even tried to overdose. When she woke up in the hospital alive, she was angry.

"I just said, 'Why couldn't you let me go? All I wanted to do is die,'" Prescott said.

Bruce Van Dusen knows that feeling, too. He's had schizophrenia for over 30 years but was misdiagnosed with bipolar.

"I didn't really know what that meant or what to think about it," Van Dusen told Ivanhoe.

At one point, he was homeless and living on the streets.

"Basically, all I did was just stand on the street corner and beg for change," Van Dusen recalled.

He also tried to kill himself several times.

"I was in a coma for about four days or so," Van Dusen said.

For Van Dusen and Prescott, the right diagnosis meant the difference between life and death.

Doctors typically diagnose a mental illness simply by asking about symptoms. Daniel Amen, M.D., a psychiatrist and medical director of the Amen Clinics in Newport Beach, Calif., says it's an archaic method.

"We basically diagnose people like we did in 1840," Dr. Amen told Ivanhoe.

Dr. Amen is using a type of brain imaging called SPECT to help diagnose patients and monitor treatment.

"Psychiatrists are the only medical doctors that never look at the organ that they treat," Dr. Amen said. "If you don't look, you miss a lot of very important pieces of information."

Technicians inject patients with a radioactive isotope. The machine snaps a picture of the brain, and the activity shows up in color.

"By showing them the image, the shame and guilt that goes along with mental illness melts away," Dr. Amen said.

Across the country, at Indiana University, investigators are studying whether a blood test can predict mental illness.

"Frankly, you know, it will bring psychiatry on par with other medical specialties," Alexander B. Niculescu III, M.D., Ph.D., a psychiatrist from Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, told Ivanhoe.

The researchers drew blood samples from bipolar patients and recorded their mood levels. They then looked for differences in the genes of the high and low mood groups. When they compared this to other data, they were able to identify 10 genes that predicted mood.

The test was up to 85 percent accurate at predicting a high mood and up to 77 percent accurate at predicting a low mood.

"I'm optimistic that a test like this will be on the market in about five years," Dr. Niculescu said.

While these approaches look promising, Thomas Insel, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md., says there's currently no test that's 100 percent accurate at detecting mental illness.

"I'd have to say the jury's out," Dr. Insel told Ivanhoe. "I have to say it's still something worth studying."

Today, the right drugs keep Prescott's illness at bay. She even runs a support group for people with bipolar.

"I do have downtimes, but they're not like they were," Prescott said.

Van Dusen wrote a book about his experience.

"Recovery is possible," he said. "Meaningful life is attainable."

Although getting a diagnosis was a struggle for these two, the future looks promising for others.

The Indiana University researchers also recently found certain markers in the blood may detect whether a person with schizophrenia is having an active hallucination.

Dr. Amen says the brain scans are another tool for doctors, but other factors like family history and symptoms also play a key role. The cost typically runs about $3,000 for an evaluation, two scans and a follow-up appointment.

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If this story or any other Ivanhoe story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Melissa Medalie at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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