In the grand scheme of things, scientists still don’t fully understand everything that goes on in the brain and how it all relates to mental illness. If they did, we’d probably have cures for currently incurable conditions.
There are, however, some occurrences that scientists have sound reasoning for. For example, the neurotransmitter serotonin plays a part in mood, and it’s believed that people with depression have lower levels of serotonin, a contributing factor to the mental illness. This is why a common treatment for depression is prescribing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which block the “reuptake” or reabsorption of serotonin in the brain, thereby hopefully keeping serotonin levels higher and more readily available.
On top of measuring serotonin levels, these home tests test other neurotransmitters like glutamate, dopamine, epinephrine (AKA adrenaline), and GABA. All of these, plus a handful of others, are believed to impact mental illness if their levels are imbalanced.
The whole process behind communication between cells in the brain with these neurotransmitters is extremely complex, mental illness or not. Dr. Robert Klitzman, MD, professor of psychiatry and Academic Director of the Master of Science in Bioethics program at Columbia University, says, “There are billions of brain cells communicating different things. All the communication in your brain at any one minute has the same complexity as all the conversations in the world on all cellphones in the world at any given minute.”
So, can an at-home urine test really get down to the nitty gritty, determining what neurotransmitters may be out of whack and contributing to mental illness? Well, the promises being made by the testing kit providers are lofty.
“You’re not going to say, ‘Oh yes, my urine tells me I’m depressed!’ No. You know you’re depressed because you’re depressed.”
One says their testing provides “precise clinical assessment” and gives patients and providers a “diagnostic edge.” Another says testing will help with understanding your body and “knowing how to make the right changes to restore your energy, your health and your hope for the future.”
However, according to some psychiatrists, these tests are too good to be true, and unfortunately, shouldn’t really be a beam of hope for mental illness sufferers.
“These tests are being widely hyped and marketed by companies that are making money off of them, but there’s no clear clinical usefulness for the vast majority of patients,” says Klitzman. “There is only very limited data, and it has not supported the notion that this is ready for wide clinical use by any means.”
Furthermore, the data that we do have has been collected from studies that have been conducted by the companies who are selling the tests themselves. These studies have been of small sample sizes, and have not been replicated.