Stem Cells Shed Light on Bipolar Disorder

Researchers have grown embryonic-like stem cells from patients with bipolar disorder and transformed them into brain cells that are already answering questions about the condition.

The cells, which carry the precisely tailored genetic instructions from the patients own cells, behave differently than cells taken from people without the disorder, the researchers report.

Already, we see that cells from people with bipolar disorder are different in how often they express certain genes, how they differentiate into neurons, how they communicate, and how they respond to lithium," Sue O'Shea, a stem cell specialist at the University of Michigan who led the study, said in a statement.

The work, described in the journal Translational Psychiatry, helps fulfill one of the big promises of stem cells research using a patients own cells to study his or her disease.

Mental illness is especially hard to study. Getting into a living persons brain is almost impossible, and scientists cant deliberately cause it in people in order to study it.

Creating animals such as mice with what looks like human mental illness is imprecise at best.

The University of Michigan team turned instead to what are called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells. These are ordinary skin cells taken from a patient and tricked into turning back into the state of a just-conceived embryo.

These cells, grown from skin cells taken from people with bipolar disorder, arose from stem cells and were coaxed to become neural progenitor cells -- the kind that can become any sort of nervous system cell. The research showed differences in cell behavior compared with cells grown from people without bipolar disorder.

They are pluripotent, meaning they can become any type of cell there is. In this case, the Michigan team redirected the cells to become neurons the cells that make up much of the brain. "This gives us a model that we can use to examine how cells behave as they develop into neurons, OShea said.

Bipolar disorder, once called manic-depression, is very common, affecting an estimated 3 percent of the population globally. It runs in families, suggesting a strong genetic cause, and is marked by mood swings from depression to feelings of euphoria and creativity thats considered the manic phase.

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Stem Cells Shed Light on Bipolar Disorder

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