Diagnosing Depression…

and Motion-Detection for Smart Vision – Medical Minutes by John Schieszer


It’s possible that a lock of hair can be used to help diagnose depression and monitor the effects of treatment, according to a new American study. Researchers looked for potential relationships between the concentration of the stress hormone cortisol in the hair and adolescents’ depression symptoms and found a surprising connection. Not only did high cortisol levels correspond to a higher likelihood of depression, but there was also a connection between low cortisol levels and mental health struggles.

Though many researchers have used cortisol measures in mental health studies in the last decade, few have looked at the stress hormone as a predictor of depression. Study investigator Jodi Ford, who is an associate professor of nursing at Ohio State University, said a biomarker-based test for depression would be valuable, particularly in children and teens. “This study opens up a lot of future research questions and illustrates that the relationship between cortisol levels and depression isn’t necessarily a linear one,” Ford said. “It may be that low cortisol is bad and high cortisol is bad and there’s a middle level that is normal.” The study included 432 adolescents (11 to 17 years old), who are part of the larger ongoing study. For the cortisol study, the researchers measured depression with a nine-item questionnaire that the participants filled out. They were asked to rate their experience in a variety of areas, including how often they feel that their life has been a failure or that people have been unfriendly to them. In most cases, the researchers examined a three-centimetre hair sample, which was enough to assess cortisol levels for the previous three months.

Ford said it’s possible that cortisol testing could serve not just as a detection tool, but as a way to watch over time to see if therapy and medication are helping someone with depression, or if the mental illness is intensifying and putting the adolescent at risk of suicide.  The researchers caution, however, that much more research is warranted before this type of testing could become widely available.


Just as motion-detection technology is changing how cars are designed, the same is occurring with eyeglasses. Using eye-tracking technology, engineers now have created a prototype for “autofocals” designed to restore proper vision in people who ordinarily would need progressive lenses. Presbyopia plagues many adults starting about age 45, as the lenses in our eyes lose the elasticity needed to focus on nearby objects. For some people, reading glasses suffice to overcome the difficulty but for many people the only fix, short of surgery, is to wear progressive lenses.

“More than a billion people have presbyopia and we’ve created a pair of auto-focal lenses that might one day correct their vision far more effectively than traditional glasses,” said electrical engineer Gordon Wetzstein, who is with Stanford University in California. For now, the prototype looks like virtual reality goggles but the team hopes to streamline the product.

Autofocals are intended to solve the main problem with today’s progressive lenses, which require the wearer to align their head to focus in a narrow area. The prototype works much like the lens of the eye, with fluid-filled lenses that bulge and thin as the field of vision changes. It also includes eye-tracking sensors that triangulate where a person is looking and determine the precise distance to the object. The team did not invent these lenses or eye-trackers, but they developed the software system that harnesses this eye-tracking data to keep the fluid-filled lenses in constant and perfect focus.

To validate the approach, the researchers tested the prototype in 56 adults with presbyopia. Test subjects said the autofocus lenses performed better and faster at reading and other tasks. Wearers also tended to prefer the autofocal glasses to the experience of progressive lenses. The next step will be to downsize the technology. Wetzstein thinks it may take a few years to develop autofocal glasses that are lightweight, energy-efficient and stylish. But he is convinced that autofocals are the future of vision correction. “This technology could affect billions of people’s lives in a meaningful way that most techno-gadgets never will,” said Wetzstein.

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at medicalminutes@gmail.com.

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