First stem cell study of bipolar disorder offers hope for …

When it comes to understanding bipolar disorder, many questions remain unanswered such as what truly causes the condition and why finding proper treatments is so difficult.

But now, researchers have taken a huge step towards solving some of the disorders complex mysteries.

Through groundbreaking stem cell research, scientists from the University of Michigan Medical School and the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Researcher Fund transformed skin cells from people with bipolar disorder into neurons that mimicked those found in their brains. They were then able to compare these nerve stem cells with cells derived from people without bipolar disorder and study how the neurons responded to medications for the condition.

Detailed in the journal Translational Psychiatry, this study marks the first time researchers have derived a stem cell line specific to bipolar disorder.

Once we have derived nerve cells, were able to study those cells and determine how they behave compared to other cells and how they behave in response to medications, principal investigator Dr. Melvin McInnis, of the Prechter Bipolar Research Fund, told So if we can understand the basic biological problems with these cells, we can potentially identify interventions that further how we understand the illness and how we treat it.

Also known as manic-depressive illness, bipolar disorder is a brain condition characterized by intense shifts in mood alternating between periods of high energy and mania to periods of severe anxiety and depression. While the condition is known to run in families, scientists still arent fully certain what causes its development, believing it to be a combination of genetics and other factors.

Additionally, the most common form of treatment for the disorder, lithium, is also somewhat of a mystery.

We really do not know and understand what drives these fluctuations in moods; we dont understand how the medications truly work that help individuals with variability in their moods, McInnis said. We dont know why an individual will become ill at a particular time. All we know is really at an observational level.

In order to better understand what is happening in the bipolar mind, McInnis and his team took small samples of skin from individuals who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. These samples were then exposed to specific growth factors, which coaxed the cells into becoming induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) meaning they had the ability to turn into any type of cell. Subsequently, the cells were exposed to an additional set of growth factors, which coaxed them into becoming neurons.

This process has also been used to better understand other complex brain disorders, such as schizophrenia and conditions that cause seizures. According to McInnis, the technique allows researchers to examine how cells behave as they develop into a whole new type of cell, as well as how they function when they finally become neurons.

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