Understanding the basic biology of bipolar disorder

Posted on February 17, 2014

Photo: flickr

Scientists know there is a strong genetic component to bipolar disorder, but they have had an extremely difficult time identifying the genes that cause it. So, in an effort to better understand the illness's genetic causes, researchers at UCLA tried a new approach.

Instead of only using a standard clinical interview to determine whether individuals met the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the researchers combined the results from brain imaging, cognitive testing, and an array of temperament and behavior measures.

Using the new method, UCLA investigators working with collaborators from UC San Francisco, Colombia's University of Antioquia and the University of Costa Rica - identified about 50 brain and behavioral measures that are both under strong genetic control and associated with bipolar disorder. Their discoveries could be a major step toward identifying the specific genes that contribute to the illness.

A severe mental illness that affects about 1 to 2 percent of the population, bipolar disorder causes unusual shifts in mood and energy, and it interferes with the ability to carry out everyday tasks. Those with the disorder can experience tremendous highs and extreme lows — to the point of not wanting to get out of bed when they're feeling down. The genetic causes of bipolar disorder are highly complex and likely involve many different genes, said Carrie Bearden, a senior author of the study and an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

The researchers assessed 738 adults, 181 of whom have severe bipolar disorder. They used high-resolution 3-D images of the brain, questionnaires evaluating temperament and personality traits of individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder and their non-bipolar relatives, and an extensive battery of cognitive tests assessing long-term memory, attention, inhibitory control and other neurocognitive abilities.

The individuals assessed in this study are members of large families living in Costa Rica's central valley and Antioquia, Colombia. The families were founded by European and native Amerindian populations about 400 years ago and have a very high incidence of bipolar disorder. The groups were chosen because they have remained fairly isolated since their founding and their genetics are therefore simpler for scientists to study than those of general populations.

Approximately 50 of these measures showed strong evidence of being influenced by genetics. Particularly interesting was the discovery that the thickness of the gray matter in the brain's temporal and prefrontal regions — the structures that are critical for language and for higher-order cognitive functions like self-control and problem-solving — were the most promising candidate traits for genetic mapping, based on both their strong genetic basis and association with the disease.

"These findings are really just the first step in getting us a little closer to the roots of bipolar disorder," Bearden said. "What was really exciting about this project was that we were able to collect the most extensive set of traits associated with bipolar disorder ever assessed within any study sample. These data will be a really valuable resource for the field."


Category(s):Bipolar

Source material from University of California Los Angeles


Mental Health News

  • To what extent is it Emotional Abuse?

    newsthumbThis article helps us identify what is deemed as emotional abuse, when and how is an action or situation a form of emotional abuse.

  • Inequality as a disorder

    newsthumbEconomic inequality is one of the signs that foreshadows societal disorder. It can also negatively impact people’s lives and is highly associated ...

  • The Truth about Psychopaths

    newsthumbThis article talks about the common misconceptions people have about psychopaths and who they really are, what type of person they are and what drew ...