What if a blood test could predict your risk for mental illness? One Waterloo researcher thinks the idea isn’t so far-fetched.

Mark Ferro, a professor in the School of Public Health and Health Systems is investigating a link between systemic inflammation in the body and mental disorders; a connection that could allow physicians to identify people at risk for mental illness with a simple blood test.

“Evidence suggests there are shared inflammatory pathways in the body,” said Ferro, who is the Canada Research Chair in Youth Mental Health. “We know that children with chronic physical conditions are two to three times more likely to develop a mental illness than healthy children. The question is why.”

Using blood biomarkers

Using blood samples collected from 500 children recently diagnosed with a chronic physical condition, Ferro is tracking their health over two years. He suspects that those with high levels of inflammatory molecules in their blood will be more likely to develop a mental illness.

“We know that after being diagnosed with a physical condition like asthma or diabetes, levels of inflammatory molecules — including tumor necrosis factor-α and members of the interleukin family — rise in the body,” said Ferro. “Because increased inflammation has also been found in people with mental illness, we think that activation of these inflammatory pathways explain, at least partly, why mental illness is so common in children with physical conditions.”

The findings could one day allow for the development of new treatments for mental disorders.

“Down the road, we could be looking at targeted treatments that block the production of or body’s response to these inflammatory molecules,” said Ferro. “Understanding the role inflammation plays is key in identifying those at risk, but also may be key in preventing the onset of mental illness in children, especially those with physical conditions.”

Ferro hopes his research will also increase awareness around the physiology of mental health.

“We often look at the body as fragmented systems,” he said. “But the truth is, all our systems are connected. Imagine if we could develop a treatment that improves physical and mental health simultaneously.”