When most of us think of stem cells, we think of ethical controversy, umbilical cord blood banks, growing new tissues and other commonly discussed topics in medical research.
I would venture that not many think of stem cell research in relation to psychiatric conditions and what we might learn about them.
Researchers at the University of Michigan are now using stem cells from skin fibroblasts of people with bipolar disorder to gain more understanding of this difficult mental illness.
By observing how the stem cells behave and change, researchers have already discovered a few ways in which cells from individuals with bipolar disorder are different from those with no bipolar disorder. Differences lie in how often certain genes are expressed, how they differentiate, how they communicate and also how they respond to lithium.
Examining gene expression in cells from those with and without bipolar disorder as they differentiated into neurons, researchers found the cells from bipolar patients express more genes involved with sending and receiving calcium signals between cells. This is particularly interesting because calcium signals are known to be important to neuron development and function and other studies have already linked bipolar disorder to problems with neuronal calcium balance.
Signalling patterns changed in the presence of lithium among the cells from bipolar patients—the lithium didn’t completely normalize the calcium signaling, but made a noticeable difference and showed that lithium (a mainstay in treatment for bipolar disorder) affects the metabolism of calcium. Researchers have also noticed differences in what is called microRNA expression in the cells from bipolar patients and this suggests bipolar disorder likely occurs as a result of a combination of genetic susceptibilities.
This is the first study of its kind, published in March in the journal Translational Psychiatry, and the investigators report being excited by preliminary findings. The more we can learn about how cells act and react in bipolar disorder and other psychiatric conditions, the better we’ll understand about causes and possible interventions to help people living with these illnesses.
I anticipate much more to come from this and other groups examining stem cells in hope of discovering more about mental illness and I look forward to the day when this kind of research enables more personalized treatment and prevention tools.
Meantime, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses can be effectively managed today. Speak with your doctor and get a referral to a mental health professional if you think you or a loved one are experiencing mental health symptoms.