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At-Home Bipolar Disorder Test: Help or Hindrance?

Advocates say it helps doctors make an accurate diagnosis, but critics say more research is needed.

Home Bipolar Disorder Test: How Accurate?

Schalling says the bipolar test is very accurate in detecting the genetic variant. "This test can tell you almost 100% if you have the risk variant," he says.

But it isn't meant to be used in isolation. "The test is really no good on its own," Schalling says. "The test must be used in combination with family history and the clinical picture."

According to Psynomics, bipolar disorder is largely hereditary, with inherited factors perhaps explaining as much as 70% of the cases.

Although the results are accurate, a definite prediction of bipolar disorder remains elusive. "This is a test that works, but it does not provide a huge amount of power, a huge amount of certainty," Schalling says. As more discoveries are made about other genes that are important in predicting bipolar disorder, that power is expected to increase.

Diagnosing Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is marked by mood shifts, and these shifts can be subtle or dramatic, making it difficult to diagnose the disorder. Generally, it is lifelong, with recurring episodes of mania and depression that can last from days to months, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Symptoms of mania can include:

  • Increased activity or energy
  • Severe irritability
  • An overly good, very euphoric mood
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Lack of good judgment
  • Need for very little sleep
  • Inability to stay "on topic"
  • Lavish spending
  • Boost in sex drive
  • Drinking too much alcohol or abusing drugs or sleep medications
  • Aggressive or provocative behavior

Depression, the other "pole," can be marked by such symptoms as:

  • Feelings of pessimism, sadness, anxiety, or emptiness
  • Lack of interest in any activities that used to bring pleasure, including sex
  • Fatigue or diminished energy
  • Feelings of irritability or restlessness
  • Sleep problems -- too much or too little
  • Weight gain or loss (without trying to) and unusual appetite changes
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

A diagnosis of mania or depression is made based on how many symptoms occur, how frequently, and for how long. Sometimes, the diagnosis is missed altogether; other times, it's mislabeled as simply clinical depression.

Typically, a doctor takes a careful history, noting the symptoms, and asks about family history.

Estimates of how many people have bipolar disorder vary widely. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates about 5.7 million Americans over age 18 are affected.

The Bipolar Test: Second Opinions

Mental health experts consulted about the new bipolar disorder tests say the science is not yet there.

"Based on everything we know, this science [behind the bipolar test] is not ready for prime time," says Tom Insel, MD, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. He doesn't rule out the possibility that within a few years and with more discoveries about the genetic roots of mental illness, some ''practical information of value'' might be gotten from these types of tests.

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