Opinion

Latimer: New research uncovering the genetics of bipolar disorder

When it comes to the brain—how it works and what happens when things go wrong—we still have much to learn.

It is sometimes referred to as medicine’s final frontier and it is always thrilling when we make new progress into the uncharted territory of the human brain.

New research published this month in the journal JAMA Psychiatry has uncovered some new data about the biological underpinnings of bipolar disorder.

As in many psychiatric conditions, we rely on a personal interview, medical history and list of symptoms to make a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Although this can be effective, it does leave room for error and sometimes it takes several years and different treatment approaches before an accurate diagnosis is made.

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness affecting roughly two per cent of the population. Sometimes it can be nearly indistinguishable from depression, but these episodes of low mood are offset by manic episodes associated with impulsive, reckless behaviour and euphoric mood.

Although mania sounds better than depression, it can be equally dangerous as people experiencing manic episodes often take excessive risks and do things they would not otherwise consider. If a bipolar individuals is incorrectly treated for just depression, the wrong medication can trigger mania.

It would be much easier if we could pinpoint the condition with a quick and accurate diagnostic test and begin effective treatment at an early stage. Although we’re not there yet, this is something that may be possible once we better understand the biology of the disorder.

Scientists at UCLA conducted this study with collaboration from the UC San Francisco and the Universities of Antioquia and Costa Rica.

Researchers examined more than 700 individuals from large family groups in Colombia and Costa Rica. They combined results from clinical interviews, brain imaging, cognitive tests and various temperament and behaviour measures to diagnose bipolar disorder.

Of the 738 people studied, 181 had severe bipolar disorder. Detailed examination of these individuals uncovered roughly 50 brain and behavioural measures that are both linked to the disorder and influenced by genetics. This is a very promising step forward in our hope to find the specific genes associated with bipolar disorder.

One very interesting finding found differences in the thickness of the grey matter in the temporal and prefrontal areas of the brain. These are brain regions associated with language and high-level cognitive function such as self-control and problem-solving—both affected in bipolar disorder.

Using the data collected in this very large study, researchers can now continue to move forward in trying to pinpoint the specific genes that are the root of bipolar disorder.

I look forward to hearing more about this promising research.

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