Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that affects nearly six million Americans, equally affecting men, women, all races, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic classes. It is characterized by extreme fluctuations in mood from mania to depression. Someone suffering from this debilitating disorder can engage in risky behavior, damage relationships, and even have suicidal tendencies if it is not treated. Although the cause of bipolar disorder still remains a mystery to scientists, a new study may solve one of the causes.
A study was published in the online journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which stated that researchers have unearthed new information regarding genetic predispositions to the disease. The research states the cause of bipolar disorder may be linked to an accumulation of rare forms of types of genes that regulate the action of nerve cells. Co-author of the study, Jared Roach, a geneticist at the Seattle-based Institute for systems Biology, explained there are a multitude of diverse variants in many genes that contribute to the possibility of a genetic risk for bipolar disorder.
A large portion of a person’s susceptibility for the disease originates from genetics, though only around 25 percent of that risk can be explicated by common genetic variations. Roach and his research team sequenced the genomes of 200 individuals from 41 families, all of whom had a history of bipolar disorder. The team then identified 164 rare forms of genes that are more prevalent in individuals with the disease. In conclusion, the study showed that people with bipolar disorder typically had six of these rare forms, compared with just one, normally, identified in relatives and amongst the general population who do not suffer from the disease.
The recognized genes regulate the mechanisms of ions, or charged particles, to pass into or leave from nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain. This deficiency affects the neuron’s ability to transport information throughout the brain. Roach explained perhaps some of the gene variants increase the strength with which the neurons act, while others decrease it. Although this is a major find, further research will be needed to unearth more information about these gene variants and what role they play in brain changes that contribute to bipolar disorder.
As previously stated, one of the main characteristics of bipolar disorder is mania. When someone experiences a manic episode, they might feel abnormally energetic and elated for no apparent reason, an energy that is hitherto anything they have ever experienced. Some people say it is a feeling that no drug can reproduce. Moreover, they may find sleep is unnecessary – going days without it. They have bright, vivid and beautiful ideas – ideas that could one day change the world, the mind is racing, boundary-less, from thought to thought, without an end in sight. Occasionally, people report of having delusional thoughts, like they possess super powers, or are on a special mission from forces that cannot be seen from the outside.
This may sound like fun, some people say they enjoy most parts of the mania. However, mania has its downsides. Mania can affect one’s ability to make good, conscious decisions, which can leave one vulnerable. Doctors state those with bipolar disorder are more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse and doing things without regards for the consequences, or going on spending binges for things one cannot afford. As well, people who are experiencing a manic episode may become uncharacteristically irritable and aggressive towards others, especially friends and family.
The flip side of the bipolar coin is depression, leaving someone in a morose, despairing mood for long periods of time. Depression can affect one’s energy levels, some people may not have the strength to even get out of bed in the morning, affecting someone both physically and psychologically. It makes one disinterested in things that previously gave them joy and happiness. It can make someone feel as if the days are one endless depth of darkness, into which one falls, aimlessly. In extreme cases, bipolar disorder can the arbiter of suicidal thoughts and actions.
People who suffer from bipolar disorder may also experience psychosis, meaning seeing and hearing things that are not there. These paranoia-driven delusions can make someone lose touch of reality and make them create their own world they internally control.
Though the causes of this disease are not fully understood yet, they can be attributed to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is also said to either cause or further the onset of the disease. Though, people who have had relatively happy or uneventful live still develop bipolar disorder. Doctors also say it can be a chemical imbalance in the brain. Researchers from the study state if someone in the immediate family suffers from bipolar disorder, they are five to ten times more likely to develop it as well.
While researchers are still far from discovering the cause of bipolar disorder, they stated their study has potential to find one of the root causes. Neuroplasticity, the way in which the brain molds and shapes through learning and new experiences can become altered by traumatic events in someone’s life, can cause neurons to become defected, thus leading to the changes in mechanisms of ions entering and leaving different parts of the brain, Roach said. Even though this study is still in its infancy, it has the ability to shed light on the cause of bipolar disorder’s debilitating nature and how it can be solved.
By: Alex Lemieux
Picture: Nicola Jones – Flickr License