As part of a decade-long research project led by scientists at Indiana University School of Medicine investigating blood-based genetic biomarkers, a newly published study has revealed the development of a blood test that can purportedly identify patients most at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and possibly even predict future psychiatric hospitalizations.

The research is ostensibly focused on correlating objective blood-based biomarkers with subjective sensations of psychological stress. Previous work by the same research team has homed in on blood biomarkers that predict suicide risk and measure pain. The new study looked at veterans suffering from PTSD, following over 250 subjects across several visits to a VA Medical Center in Indianapolis.

Ultimately, the researchers uncovered 285 specific blood biomarkers that correlated with the severity of the subjects' PTSD. Up to 269 different genes were also identified as related to those specific biomarkers.

"There are similar tests like this in other fields, like cancer, where a physician can biopsy the affected part of the body to determine the stage of disease," explains Alexander Niculescu, psychiatry professor from Indiana University, and lead on the new study. "But when it comes to mental health, biopsying the brain isn't an option. Our research is applying similar concepts from other areas of medicine, but we're engineering new ways that will allow us to track mental symptoms objectively, including stress, using blood, or so-called 'liquid biopsies.'"

The blood test, if successfully implemented into clinical use, could offer a multitude of benefits for both patients and doctors. Acute PTSD severity could be objectively measured by doctors, allowing for clear and quantifiable insights into whether a patient is improving through a given treatment. The genetic specificity of the test could also allow for more subjective precision treatments to be tailored to individual patients. The researchers point out certain gene expression signatures could indicate the specific drug targets that would be most effective for a given patient.

"We think that one of the key uses of our research would be to test people before they have symptoms of an illness to see who's at risk and possibly treat them early," says Niculescu. "It's much better to prevent things for the person, and for the health care system, than to treat somebody who is in an acute crisis."

The new research is at the forefront of an interesting body of study working to find whole body traces for mental health disorders. Some scientists are suggesting conditions such as schizophrenia may not just be localized to the brain, and interesting connections have been discovered linking gut bacteria with both depression and PTSD.

Niculescu and his research team may be several years away from rolling these blood tests out into clinical settings but the pathway is certainly promising. The researchers are currently seeking more funding and institutional collaborations to better develop this kind of comprehensive blood-based biomarker research.

The new study was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.