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Friday, 15 September, 2000, 02:05 GMT 03:05 UK
Biological clue to depression
Lab work
Tests revealed a tell-tale biological reaction
Scientists have discovered a tell-tale biological reaction that may be able to identify children at risk of depression before they fall ill.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in the US tested children who face a greater risk for the illness through a family history of major depression.

They found that these children produce significantly less growth hormone (GH) than their peers when given growth hormone releasing hormone (GHRH).

If there was a test that could identify high risk children in this way it would be very useful

Professor Andre Tylee, Institute of Psychiatry

The researchers do not know whether the response is due to genetics or if it is a sign of family stress.

Researcher Dr Boris Birmaher said: "This discovery adds a significant piece of information to our understanding of depression in children and adolescents.

"Research needs to be done to learn if the blunted growth hormone response to GHRH will predict the development of depression in children of depressed parents."

The study builds on University of Pittsburgh research from 1994.

This discovered that children and adolescents with acute episodes of major depression secrete less growth hormone during their illness.

In the study, the researchers administered GHRH to 119 children between the ages of 8 and 16.

Of these, 64 were at high risk for developing depression due to family history of mood disorders.

The remaining 55 subjects did not have family history of depression and were not at high risk of developing the illness.

Biological reaction

The researchers discovered that the biological reaction of the high risk children was similar to that shown by children who were actively suffering from depression, or who had recently been ill.

Professor Andre Tylee, of the Institute of Psychiatry, welcomed the research.

He told BBC News Online: "If there was a test that could identify high risk children in this way it would be very useful as family history is not a very good marker at all."

Professor Tylee said it would not be practical to introduce a blanket screening programme for all children, but it would potentially be useful to test those whose family history indicated that their might be a problem.

The research is published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.

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