Available blood tests for panic disorder and other mental-health conditions are potentially around the corner, according to results from a new study initiated by the University of Iowa.
The findings, based on analysis of genetic information in immature white blood cells, just appeared in the online version of the American Journal of Medical Genetics.
"The ability to test for panic disorder is a quantum leap in psychiatry," said the study's lead author, Robert Philibert, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa's Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine.
"Panic disorder will no longer be a purely descriptive diagnosis, but, as with cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome and other conditions, a diagnosis based on genetic information," he said.
In addition, noted Philibert, "the finding could help us better understand the pathways that initiate, promote and maintain panic disorder."
The team compared gene expression in lymphoblasts (immature white blood cells) culled from 16 participants with panic disorder and 17 participants without it.
The study found that many genes were more expressed in people with panic disorder than in people without the condition.
Similarly, the study found that many genes were less expressed in people with panic disorder. There were also sex-related differences to be considered, according to the report.
Overall, people with panic disorder had noticeably different patterns of gene expression than people without the disorder.
Although panic disorder is a disease of brain cells, the study used lymphoblasts as "stand-ins" for the genetic testing because brain cells are not accessible or easily tested.
About 3 percent of people in the United States have panic disorder, which involves having at least one panic attack every four weeks.
Panic attacks can involve up to 10 symptoms, including palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, and a feeling of a loss of control or even dying -- symptoms very similar to those who are suffering from actual heart attacks.
A blood test for commercial use is currently being developed by the university, which raises larger questions about how information revealed by such tests will then be used.
Philibert said that the issue of patient medical records -- and how those records can potentially be used by employers, insurers, government agencies and other institutions -- remains a concern.