Simple breath tests taken during routine visits to doctors or dentists could one day provide early warning of a whole range of potentially devastating conditions from schizophrenia to diabetes.

In fact, the foundation’s mission is to improve the quality of life of people with neuro-developmental disorders and associated conditions by conducting research into safer, more effective diagnostic tests and treatments. It also works to break down the stigma surrounding debilitating conditions such as schizophrenia, a mental illness affecting an estimated one in 100 people.

In academic partnership with the UHI Millennium Institute and other organizations around the world, the Ness Foundation is probing the role of lipids — specifically fatty acids — in schizophrenia, autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression.

The concept of phospholipid spectrum disorder, which essentially describes problems with the cell membrane that may cause a breakdown in communication between brain cells, is changing the way we think about psychiatric disorders.

Ross, a biochemist, and his team are developing breath analysis tests that detect chemicals associated with various illnesses. Pan Diagnostics, a commercial subsidiary of the Ness Foundation, has come up with a simple air-lock bag that can be used to trap breath, allowing analysts to detect evidence of oxidative stress and fatty acid performance based on the breakdown of omega-3 fatty acids.

In everyday life, oxidative stress describes what happens when iron rusts and butter turns rancid. The havoc is wreaked by free radical molecules, which are the products of normal cell processes. But the destruction caused by free radical molecules in the body can result in untold damage to brain cells. Damage caused by free radicals also can lead to a loss of some types of fatty acids in the brain, in turn leading to problems with brain function and behavior.

Ross’ team has discovered that some people with mental illness may also be under oxidative stress. They are attempting to identify new drugs that can effectively reduce oxidative stress in the brain. Simple fish oil supplements, rich in the omega-3 fatty acids essential to our health, are one such source found in nature.

The team has found that certain marker gases given off in the breath can give advance warning of excessive oxidative stress. Ross calls this area of study breathonomics. Scientists will typically analyze only six out of 3,000 compounds which can be detected in our breath. The machinery they use is capable of detecting 0.1 parts per billion.

Evidence shows, for example, high levels of acetone in diabetics. Some research also points to markers for lung disease.

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