How Genetic Testing Could Improve Depression and Anxiety Treatment

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There are more than 50 different medications available to treat depression and anxiety, but finding one that works well for you can be a long and frustrating process. More than half of people who try these drugs, such as antidepressants, don’t find relief from anxiety or depression or experience unwanted side effects. It’s not uncommon to spend close to a year working with a doctor, using trial and error, to determine what medications are effective.

Now, however, there are simple genetic tests that could help your doctor identify which medicines for depression and anxiety are likely to be a good fit for you.

What is a genetic test for depression and anxiety treatment?

Genetic tests for depression and anxiety treatments are part of a rapidly growing field called “personalized” or “precision” medicine. Instead of your doctor prescribing drugs based primarily on factors like weight and age, the tests show how a drug will affect you as an individual. Using your DNA, they compare how your particular genetic makeup affects how your body processes key components in antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs. For instance, if you metabolize a certain chemical slowly, you may need a lower dose of a medication. These tests can also increase patient safety by identifying drugs that may cause undesirable interactions or side effects.

The tests have only become available in recent years, and there is some debate about them among healthcare professionals. Experts are still assessing how to educate doctors about analyzing test results, determining when the tests should be recommended, and studying data about their effectiveness. There are several different brands on the market, and not all of them analyze the same genetic variables, which can also affect results.

Still, some studies have shown the tests do reduce the process of trial and error. As the body of information about different genes and drugs interactions grows, the tests should become more advanced, and their usefulness will continue to increase. 

How is a genetic test for depression and anxiety treatment done?

Though there are several different manufacturers of the tests, all are done through your doctor's office. They are simple and painless. You will get a kit that contains a swab, with instructions on how to use it to collect some saliva. Your saliva sample, containing your DNA, will be sent to a lab for analysis and the results will be sent to your doctor. These results include a key that indicates how you are likely to respond to various medications for anxiety and depression. That information allows your provider to make a more informed decision about what kind of medicine you should try and at what dosage.

More than half a million people have had genetic testing for anxiety and depression treatment, and the number is growing steadily. Talk to your doctor about his or her experience with the tests and whether it could help you find an effective way to treat your anxiety or depression. Genetic testing can be expensive, so be sure to check with your insurance provider about coverage and make sure you understand any costs to you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 11
  1. Pharmacogenomics in the treatment of mood disorders:
    Strategies and Opportunities for personalized psychiatry. U.S. National Library
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  4. Pharmacogenomic testing for treatment resistant depression.
    The Mental Health Clinician.
  5. Antidepressant prescribing in the precision medicine era: a
    prescriber’s primer on pharmacogenetic tools. BMC Psychiatry.
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