Naturally occurring brain wiring changes might help prevent bipolar disorder in people who have a high genetic risk for the mental illness, a new study suggests.
The discovery about these brain wiring changes could help efforts to develop better treatments for the disorder, according to Mount Sinai Hospital researchers in New York City.
People with bipolar disorder experience severe swings in mood, energy and activity levels, and the ability to perform daily tasks. Genetics are a major risk factor, and people with a parent or sibling with bipolar disorder are much more likely to develop it than those with no family history of the mental illness.
Researchers used functional MRI to monitor the brains of bipolar disorder patients, their siblings who did not have the illness (resilient siblings) and unrelated healthy volunteers. The bipolar disorder patients and their resilient siblings had similar abnormalities in brain wiring that handles emotional processing, but the resilient siblings had additional changes in that wiring.
“The ability of the siblings to rewire their brain networks means they have adaptive neuroplasticity that may help them avoid the disease even though they still carry the genetic scar of bipolar disorder when they process emotional information,” study lead author Dr. Sophia Frangou, a professor of psychiatry, said in a Mount Sinai news release.
The study was published online Jan. 5 in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
“A family history remains the greatest risk factor for developing bipolar disorder and while we often focus on risk, we may forget that the majority of those who fall into this category remain well,” Frangou said.
“Looking for biological mechanisms that can protect against illness opens up a completely new direction for developing new treatments. Our research should give people hope that even though mental illness runs in families, it is possible to beat the odds at the genetic lottery,” she concluded.
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about bipolar disorder.