A study published last month in a journal called Translational Psychiatry entitled “Transcripts involved in calcium signaling and telencephalic neuronal fate are altered in induced pluripotent stem cells from bipolar disorder patients” reported interesting findings about the development of brain cells in people with bipolar disorder compared to controls — people without bipolar disorder. The study was unique in two important ways:
The researchers took skin cells from three people with bipolar disorder and two controls. These cells are placed in culture dishes and reprogrammed into stem cells called induced pluripotent stem cells or iPsc’s. These cells then began the process of turning into the many different types of cells in the human body.
Cells that were beginning to turn into neurons — brain cells — were selected and then further grown and observed using a variety of laboratory techniques to measure genetic expression and cell behaviors.
Neurons that grew from bipolar stem cells showed significant differences in their gene expression profile from the neurons that grew from the control stem cells:
Important Note: Genes Not the Only Cause
Of note is that this research is looking at gene expression in adults with bipolar disorder. This does not in any way mean that the genes are the only cause. While genetics is thought to account for about 80% of the cause of bipolar disorder, there remain many unknown factors including environmental triggers in particular physical and emotional stressors on the body. This study is not examining any of these important factors.
This is an exciting study that uses new technology to try to understand the neurologic changes underlying bipolar disorder. While this research is still preliminary and needs to be expanded and replicated, it represents a new line of study that offers new frontiers for understanding how the brains of people with bipolar disorder develop and operate differently from those of people without bipolar. Ultimately this information will be central in evolving more accurate and effective tools for diagnosis as well as treatment options.
I am particularly interested in the developmental angle here — the awareness that the neurologic beginnings of illnesses that present later in life may well be in place from the earliest developmental stages of brain formation. I think that this offers us a more accurate and useful understanding of mental illness and is optimistic in terms of developing early diagnostic tools and perhaps even ultimately ways to prevent the onset of these devastating conditions.
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Last reviewed: 8 Apr 2014