Researchers from three leading medical organizations in the United States have discovered a potential genetic overlap between bipolar disorder (BD) and other mental conditions such as autism and schizophrenia.

In a study featured in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, scientists from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the University of Iowa examined the relationship between some of the most well-known mental disorders.

They found that many psychiatric illnesses have the same genetic roots such as those identified in people with autism and those with bipolar disorder.

BD is considered to be an important psychiatric condition because of how relatively common it is. Studies show that about 1 to 3 percent of people living in the United States suffer from this debilitating disorder.

While many of those affected by BD are given treatment for their condition, about one-third of them don't experience any benefit from current therapies.

Scientists have identified BD as a highly heritable mental condition, but they've had a hard time finding out the specific genetic factors that lead to the disorder's development.

In this recent study, the researchers focused their efforts in looking for rare genetic variations associated with BD in eight families that had a history of the mental condition.

Through the use of a cutting-edge gene-sequencing procedure known as Exome sequencing, they were able to identify 84 rare variants in 82 individual genes. The variations they found were also known to cause damage to certain proteins.

The research team then cross-referenced the genes and their variations with datasets from three different large case-control studies, which included sequences collected from 3,541 bipolar disorder patients and 4,774 individuals that served as control patients.

Of the 82 genes that the team discovered, 19 were shown to be in greater proportions among BD patients compared to those in the control group.

Study co-author James Potash explained that the findings were not strong enough for them to say that they've identified the genetic factors of bipolar disorder. However, it was strong enough to convince them to continue their analysis of these genes as possible contributors to the mental condition.

After considering the 19 individual genes as a group, the researchers found that some of these genes were also associated with other psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia and autism.

Potash and his colleagues believe that through the help of studies such as theirs, scientists will soon be able to pinpoint the specific genes and variations involved in the development of bipolar disorder. This would allow them to formulate new treatments that could effectively help individuals who suffer from this mental condition.

Photo: Victor Casale | Flickr

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