New test speeds up mental-health help

U of M team believes method can quickly, accurately diagnose bipolar disorder, depression


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Instead of taking months or years to get a correct diagnosis, University of Manitoba researchers say they’ve found a way to tell if someone has bipolar disorder or major depression with a painless test that takes less than an hour.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/04/2019 (1396 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Instead of taking months or years to get a correct diagnosis, University of Manitoba researchers say they’ve found a way to tell if someone has bipolar disorder or major depression with a painless test that takes less than an hour.

“It’s very hard to tell if a person has bipolar disorder or depression,” said Brian Lithgow, an adjunct biomedical engineering professor who runs a neurodiagnostics lab.

It can take years of observation to get the diagnosis right. Someone with bipolar disorder can have 10 major depressive episodes for every manic event, and go years without having a manic event, he said.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Biomedical engineering professor Brian Lithgow found a way to diagnose whether a person is manic-depressive or suffering from major depression with a single test using this electrovestibulography equipment.

If they’re diagnosed with major depression and are actually bipolar, medication could trigger a manic event and “really cause some damage,” said Lithgow, who leads the diagnostic and neurosignal processing research groups at Winnipeg’s Riverview Health Centre and at Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia.

Lithgow’s team uses electrovestibulography, which involves the subject sitting in a moving hydraulic chair while high-tech earbuds measure impulses from their vestibular system, which includes the parts of the inner ear and brain that help control balance.

He started off researching cochlear implants for people with nerve deafness and then shifted his focus to the vestibular system, looking at the responses of people with Parkinson’s disease before and after taking medication. By accident, his team discovered that the response of someone with Parkinson’s who also had major depression was very different. That led to further research involving patients with major depression, whose responses looked very different than those with bipolar disorder.

“People with (disorders) have different responses to healthy people,” Lithgow said. The years of research led to an article posted in the latest World Journal of Biological Psychiatry.

“What we’d like to do is commercialize this thing, if possible,” Lithgow said, adding that will require more research to back up the findings. “If we can find a local psychiatrist willing to collaborate, we would like to look for 300 volunteers who’ve been diagnosed with major depression or bipolar to take part in another double-blind study,” he said.

The process involves filling out a questionnaire and taking a hearing test before soft earbuds that have electrodes are placed in the ear canal. The subjects are taken into a quiet room with a hydraulic chair that moves them forward, backward, up and down and sideways while recording the electrical activity from their ears. The data is analyzed to determine if they have bipolar disorder or major depression.

“It takes about an hour,” Lithgow said. “The testing might prove to be very beneficial, particularly to people who have a diagnosis but still are not sure.”

It could more quickly show which meds are working for someone and which ones are not, he said.

“It’s kind of neat to think this kind of research is going on here,” said Tara Brousseau-Snider, executive director of the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba. “They’re finding they can predict quite accurately if it’s depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder.”

The association has referred people to the neurodiagnostics lab at Riverview. The information collected could help the medical community know what to look for and how to help.

“We see the value in something like this because people get answers,” she said. “We are happy to support the research.”

Contact for more information.

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.


Updated on Wednesday, April 3, 2019 7:19 PM CDT: Adds link to journal report.

Updated on Thursday, April 4, 2019 8:49 AM CDT: Final

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