At-Home Bipolar Disorder Test: Accuracy, Diagnosis, and More

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An at-home bipolar test, launched in February 2008 and sold over the Internet, is meant to be used with a doctor’s evaluation to make a correct diagnosis of bipolar disorder more quickly.

“Sales continue to be brisk,” says Kurt May, CEO and founder of Psynomics Inc., the San Diego-based company producing the $399 at-home saliva into the kit’s resealable container, then mail the saliva sample back to Psynomics.

A second 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 Depression, the other “pole,” can be marked by such symptoms as:

    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.

Of the genetic links, Insel says: “What has been found is an association with a common [genetic] variant that increases your risk of the illness. It confers a very slight increase in risk. But that is a long way from being able to use that single genetic association to make any practical clinical decision.”

“They simply haven’t proven an association,” says Douglas F. Levinson, MD, the Walter E. Nichols, MD, Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. “These tests are based on data which are not considered statistically significant in the field of genetics as a whole,” he says, adding that a person’s best resource for diagnosing bipolar disorder is still a mental health professional.

Medical ethicist Arthur Caplan, PhD, agrees that the science isn’t there yet. “I think we have companies rushing to take advantage of hype that genomics is ready to go and predict a wide variety of diseases,” says Caplan, the Emanuel and Robert Hart Professor of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. “It’s coming, but [it’s] not there yet.”

A more powerful predictor would be to ask a doctor to look at your family history in more detail, says Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “I would pay that $399 for the best consultant in your city. Ask me in five years and perhaps I would have a different take on this.

“>brain to consider genetic testing to be definitive at this point for any mental illness,” he says.

The test could have potential harm, says Clarence H. Braddock III, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine and director of clinical ethics for the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. For instance, a doctor might erroneously diagnose someone as bipolar based on the genetic test results. “There are a lot of consequences [associated with an incorrect diagnosis],” he says, such as medication costs and side effects and the social stigma associated with mental illness.

In a general statement addressing all at-home genetic tests, the Federal Trade Commission notes that “a healthy dose of skepticism may be the best prescription.”

A Patient’s Perspective

The home test wasn’t available when Ross Szabo, now 29, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 16. He probably wouldn’t have taken advantage of the test, he tells WebMD, because his diagnosis, based on symptoms, was “pretty clear.”

Whether consumers use the test or not, says Szabo, who works as director of youth outreach for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign, “you can’t look at the diagnosis as the end of the problem. It’s really only the beginning. Finding the right diagnosis is important. Accepting that diagnosis is more important.”