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Striving for New Understanding of Depression and Bipolar – We Need YOU!

By Melvin McInnis, M.D.

There are endless questions surrounding depression and bipolar disorder. For those who live with either of these illnesses, the common ones are: Why ME? And what treatment will be best for ME? What if it does not work? How do we know which one to try?

Depression has many things in common with other chronic illnesses such as diabetes. Those with diabetes need to attend to the illness on a daily basis. Blood sugar is measured and (for many) a specific amount of insulin is given. There are guidelines for diet and exercise along with goals for the ideal weight. Daily duties for depression include attention to a regular routine of sleep, a healthy diet, exercise, and often, taking medicine. Very similar to diabetes. The difference is that we don’t have the equivalent of the blood sugar measurement to guide treatments.

Such measurements are referred to as biological markers, or “biomarkers,” a term you will be hearing a lot more of in the near future. What are the biomarkers for specific illnesses? For diabetes, it is blood sugar and something called “A1C”; for heart disease, specific “biomarkers” range from blood tests to stress tests. We need a “stress test” for depression and bipolar disorder.

At the University of Michigan Depression Center – we are on it. We are collaborating with thousands of people – including those living with depression or bipolar disorder, and those without – to solve the questions of “what, why, how, and when” related to mood disorders and biomarkers.

One opportunity to be a part of research that is looking for the “stress test” for depression is a study called “Establishing Moderators and Biosignatures of Antidepressant Response for Clinical Care,” or EMBARC, which is looking for biomarkers to better predict how a person will respond to an antidepressant medication. Of course, there are many ways to help manage depression symptoms, such as exercise, healthy living, and psychotherapy; this project is focused on figuring out how to predict whether certain medications may help those with moderate to severe depression.

Similarly, the Heinz C Prechter Bipolar Research Program is designed to determine what keeps folks with bipolar illness well, what makes them ill, and supports the research aimed at the finding a cure for bipolar. Some depressions are a part of bipolar disorder and require the specialty care of experts. Biomarker studies in this program are the first steps to managing and then curing the disorder. It will happen. We think soon!  

Many projects such as EMBARC and the lithium outcomes trial (PGBD) offer specific interventions and assessments to help the world understand how best to manage, treat, and cure depression and bipolar disorder. Cutting edge work is ongoing using a special type of stem cell derived from skin samples. Voice patterns are being gathered to identify variations in speech that may signal an impending change of moods.  No stone is left unturned!

Should I participate? Why me?

Participating in research helps. It helps you. It helps everyone. At the U-M Depression Center, we have been engaging folks in research for decades and hear comments such as “I just feel so much better participating in research.” Why is this? There may be many reasons. Many individuals receive additional medical care by participating in research. Many participants are compensated in some way for their time and participation. Other reasons are more personal and less tangible, tied to an innate wish to benefit our community, friends, and family in some way.

Of course, all research carries the potential for some risks, which each person should carefully consider along with the potential benefits when weighing whether to participate in a study. But please know that that the risks and benefits of any study, however large or small, have been carefully evaluated by a group of scientists and community members known as an Institutional Review Board, or “IRB,” which must approve the research plan for any study before any research activities may begin.

Protecting the safety and confidentiality of our participants is a top priority of researchers everywhere. This means your participation in any study is completely voluntary, and something you can end at any time, for whatever reason. You also have the right to ask any questions of the research team to understand exactly what a study is for, and what participating in it would mean for you.

Participation in research makes you a partner and team member – a collaborator at a time in medical research that is unparalleled in the history of mankind. Our world has so many challenges; bipolar disorder and depression are among the top medical illnesses causing lifelong disability. You and I can make a difference. Bo Schlembechler, one of Michigan’s most revered coaches, emphasized three things – the team, the team, and the team.

So, if you or those you know and care about have depression or bipolar disorder, know that the energy and excitement in the researchers at the U-M Depression Center is surging high. We have now entered our second decade, with momentum from the schools and departments throughout U-M. Our vision is a world freed of the burdens of depression and bipolar disorders through integrated scientific and clinical knowledge, engaged communities and public awareness. Our academic mission is focused on new trajectories in biomarkers for diagnosing and predicting who will respond to treatments.

We are actively looking for participants in research, and we need you. Why? Because together we can kick depression, beat the blues of bipolar disorder, and change the world.

Dr. McInnis is an associate director of the Depression Center and the principal investigator of the Prechter Bipolar Research Program.

Learn more about depression, bipolar, and research: