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The Genetics Behind Bipolar Disorder

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

By Alessandra Dounias


When you think about your genetic makeup, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Most people think of genes that affect their physical appearance, like how they got their eye color from their mother or their height from their father, but your genes play a much larger role in your life and health than just deciding the color of your hair. Genetic disorders are diseases caused in whole or in part by alterations in the DNA sequence which make them different from the normal sequence. Anyone who is affected by one of these disorders could have just a few base pairs mixed up in their DNA, and it results in them looking or thinking completely different from their peers without these alterations.


Bipolar disorder is a genetic disorder that impacts over 7 million adults in the US alone. It essentially causes extremely unusual shifts in a person’s moods or thoughts that can severely inhibit their ability to function. There are three different types of bipolar disorder, Bipolar I, Bipolar II, and Cyclothymic disorder, each experiencing the same symptoms at differing intensities. People with Bipolar disorder will experience episodes of mania and depression at varying degrees and lengths of time. During manic episodes, they will experience symptoms such as high energy, reduced need for sleep, increased or faster speech, unmanageable racing thoughts or quickly changing ideas, increased chance of risky behavior, and loss of touch with reality that can last weeks or months. During depressive episodes, they will experience symptoms such as low energy, low motivation, intense sadness, changes in sleep patterns and appetite, difficulty concentrating, and loss of interest in daily activities, that can last weeks or months, and may also be associated with suicidal thoughts. You may be wondering what distinguishes people with bipolar disorder from the average person experiencing mood swings, and while it’s true that people without the disorder experience mood fluctuations as well, these mood changes typically last for mere hours rather than days. Additionally, these changes aren’t usually accompanied by the same massive behavioral changes or extreme difficulty with daily routines and social interactions that people with bipolar disorder demonstrate during one of these mood episodes. At their worst, these episodes can disrupt a person’s relationships with their loved ones and make it difficult for them to work or go to school.


So, how is the gene for bipolar disorder inherited, and why is it triggered in certain individuals? Over 80 to 90 percent of individuals with bipolar disorder have a relative with bipolar disorder or depression, meaning that the disease is passed on from family member to family member more commonly than it is a result of a random genetic mutation. Various environmental factors like stress, sleep disruption, drugs, and alcohol may trigger Bipolar disorder in people carrying the gene for it. Examples of situations that could bring the disorder on are the breakdown of a relationship, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, and even the death of a loved one. These are all life-altering events that can result in depressive episodes at any point in a person’s life, but will also succeed at triggering the disorder in those who are vulnerable. Bipolar disorder can also be triggered by smaller afflictions such as persistent physical illness, sleep disturbances, and overwhelming problems in every day life, like issues with money, work, or relationships. The average age of onset is 25 years old, but it can be triggered in teens or, less commonly, in children. In addition to the genetic component and the physical trigger, bipolar disorder has more recently been found to be linked to chemical imbalances in the brain. If there is an imbalance in the levels of one or more neurotransmitters, a person may develop certain symptoms of bipolar disorder. For example, manic episodes may occur when noradrenaline levels are too high, and depressive episodes may result from noradrenaline levels becoming too low.


Nowadays, there are a few ways to treat Bipolar disorder. To mitigate the effects of manic and depressive episodes, patients are often given mood stabilizers like lithium which are believed to correct imbalanced brain signaling. As these mood episodes are persistent throughout patients’ lives, preventative treatment is also required, so most people with this disorder will be on medication even when they feel better. Doctors may also recommend hospitalization for patients who are behaving dangerously, or day treatment programs for those seeking support while dealing with symptoms. Overall, it’s very possible to live with the disorder, even if you feel like your genes have betrayed you.


References:

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2022, December 13). Bipolar disorder. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bipolar-disorder/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20355961


NHS. (2023, January 3). Causes-Bipolar Disorder. NHS choices. https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/bipolar-disorder/causes/#:~:text=A%20stressful%20circumstance%20or%20situation,physical%2C%20sexual%20or%20emotional%20abuse


What are bipolar disorders?. Psychiatry.org - What Are Bipolar Disorders? (n.d.).





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