Genetic markers for bipolar disorder to be explored in new research

A new research project with the 45 and Up Study hopes to reveal the genetic risk factors for bipolar disorder so that the condition can be better diagnosed and treated.

The NeuRA Research Project, run by Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) and The University of New South Wales, aims to better understand the role that genes play in the development of bipolar disorder, severity of illness, as well as a patient’s response to treatment. More than 3000 participants from the Sax Institute’s 45 and Up Study – Australia’s largest ongoing study into healthy ageing – have been invited to take part.

Bipolar disorder affects 1 in 50 Australians, or 1.8% of the population. The mental health condition is characterised by extreme mood swings including emotional highs (mania) and lows (depression).

It can take years to be properly diagnosed and treated for the condition, says Associate Professor Jan Fullerton, Principal Research Scientist at NeuRA.

Associate Professor Jan Fullerton.
Associate Professor Jan Fullerton.

“It takes an average of eight years to arrive at a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and then only 30% of patients respond to the gold-standard treatment of lithium. The other 70% must trial many other medicines to find relief. But the more we know about the genetic factors of bipolar disorder, the better we will become at identifying and treating it.”

Dr Fullerton has been studying the genetics of mental illness for more than two decades, after experiencing a period of depression herself. “I was amazed by the impact that medication had on my symptoms, but I knew that many people do not have such a good response. I wanted to better understand the causes of mental illness and whether clues in our DNA can guide treatment.”

Recent research on bipolar disorder has shown that it’s not just one gene responsible for causing the condition, but hundreds of genes that each contribute a small increase in risk. “It’s the accumulation of many of these genetic variants, in addition to environmental factors, that leads to the development of illness,” says Dr Fullerton. “But no two patients have the same combination of genetic risk factors, so we need lots of volunteers to help us identify the patterns.”

This research project will not only help identify and define additional genes, but will also investigate why people with bipolar disorder are more likely to have a variety of physical illnesses too. The new work will build on the team’s research into the link between bipolar disorder and physical illness, which used existing 45 and Up Study data.

“People with bipolar disorder have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, asthma, diabetes, chronic pain and other conditions,” says Dr Fullerton. “Most studies to date have not taken into account the impact of physical health issues, nor lifestyle patterns like the amount of daily exercise on physical and mental health outcomes, which we are uniquely able to do using the 45 and Up Study data – but we need study participants to help us.”

A sample of participants from the 45 and Up Study has been invited to provide a blood sample for analysis and complete a questionnaire.

“My team and I are hoping that enough people are inspired to donate some blood and fill in a survey to help this important work move forward,” says Dr Fullerton. “The outcomes of this project could improve the quality of life for all people living with bipolar disorder.”

Data collection is being managed by the Sax Institute, an independent not-for-profit organisation that improves health and wellbeing by driving better use of evidence. Blood collections are managed by NSW Health Pathology, and genome sequencing will be performed at the Kinghorn Centre for Clinical Genomics. More information on the project can be found here.

The 45 and Up Study has followed more than 250,000 Australian participants since 2005, providing an important resource for researchers and policy makers to support better health and ageing. More than 500 papers using data from the Study have been published.