Largest ever genetic study of bipolar disorder offers hope of new treatments

Updated: Aug 23


New research has pinpointed over 60 genes that could help discover new medicines for bipolar disorder.


In what is now the largest genetic study of bipolar disorder ever, a team of researchers led by scientists at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York analysed the DNA of over 410,000 people, 40,000 of whom had bipolar disorder.


The team searched for over 7.5 million DNA variations and discovered 64 regions of DNA that increased the risk of bipolar disorder.


Of the 64 regions, 15 were identified as strongly linked with bipolar disorder and could be used as treatment targets.


Some of the targets identified implied that existing treatments for other conditions could be used to treat bipolar disorder too, including calcium channel blockers which are often prescribed for high blood pressure.


“Our findings suggest that drugs such as calcium channel blockers – that are already used for the treatment of high blood pressure and other conditions of the circulatory system – could be investigated as potential treatments for bipolar disorder," Niamh Mullins, lead author of the study told i News.


“Yet it’s important to note that future research to directly assess whether these medications are effective is essential.”


Calcium channel blockers slow down the rate at which calcium enters cells in the heart and arteries, allowing arteries to widen and reduce blood pressure.


According to the new research, DNA variations related to calcium signalling were identified in brain cells of those with bipolar disorder, suggesting calcium channel blockers could be a potential treatment option for people with the condition.


Genetic variations pointing toward the potential therapeutic roles of antipsychotics, anti-epileptics and anaesthetics were also identified.


Read more: New blood test can diagnose severity of mental health issues

According to Bipolar UK, an estimated 1.3 million people are currently living with bipolar disorder in the UK, which translates to around 1 in every 50 people.


The condition is characterised by extreme mood swings, often from a state of mania (an extreme high) to depression, with varying lengths of time feeling 'normal' in between.


People with the condition can experience 'rapid cycling' mood swings, which involves switching from mania to depression very quickly, or 'mixed state' mood swings, where both mania and depression can be experienced at the same time.


The most common treatment for bipolar disorder in the UK is lithium which is thought to strengthen signalling in regions of the brain that regulate mood.


Lithium and aripiprazole (an antipsychotic) are currently the only officially-approved treatments for use in teenagers with bipolar disorder.


To read the full study paper, click here (payment necessary for full access).


Written by Marco Ricci

Editor and contributor for Talking Mental Health