Can we Sense Mental Health using Chemistry?

Meet the Triathlete and Researcher Revolutionizing the Way We Understand Feelings, and even our Brains

Okezue Bell

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The mental health crisis is rapidly increasing, with nearly 1 in 5 US adults suffering from a serious mental illness in 2020. Looking deeper, we find that emotional instability and altered neurological behaviors are most common among adults of ages 18–25, though relatively common across all ages, races, and genders. This is largely because mental health has become increasingly stigmatized in recent cultural and sociopolitical climates, both in the United States and internationally.

Mental health issues are frequently viewed as embarrassing or dramatized, often delaying treatment or health. Most notably, the classical conception of mental health is that of a problem, but not necessarily an actual disorder or health issue.

When we think of depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, we think of mood, thinking, and behavior. These three hallmarks of mental health issues are then associated with treatments such as therapy and medicinal prescriptions as a peripheral stall. Too frequently, mental health is treated as a social or emotional concern and not as a biological one. While therapy and psychological conditioning may be effective, is it feasible that we could address these issues at their root by assessing and treating them neurologically?

In true STEM fashion, researchers have already begun dreaming up experiments to answer this question. I sat down with Dr. Nako Nakatsuka, a senior scientist in the Laboratory of Biosensors and Bioelectronics at ETH Zürich and a recipient of the 2022 MIT Technology Review Under 35 Innovator award, to hear about her sensory solution.

Nakatsuka developed aptamer biosensors that could detect small chemical changes within the brain, and even differentiate between structurally similar chemicals, such as neurotransmitters, agonists, and metabolites. Such chemical changes in brain fluid or tissue can reflect the neurological state of individuals with mental health and brain disorders.

Biosensors

A core aspect of Nakatsuka’s research product was biosensors, or bio-compatible devices capable of…

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Okezue Bell

Social technologist with a passion for journalism and community outreach.