Australian researchers are seeking 5000 adults who have been treated for bipolar disorder to volunteer for the world’s largest genetic investigation into the chronic illness. QIMR Berghofer’s Professor Sarah Medland is the Coordinating Principal Investigator of the Australian Genetics of Bipolar Disorder Study, which aims to find genetic risk factors for the illness and treatment options. Visit www.geneticsofbipolar.org.au to participate.
Approximately 1 in 50 Australians, or about two per cent of people, will experience bipolar disorder during their lifetime. Bipolar is a universal disorder affecting all genders, nationalities and socioeconomic groups equally.
People with bipolar disorder — previously called manic depression — can have depressive, and manic or hypomanic episodes that can last a week or more, affecting their thoughts and behaviour. It is a complex disorder that occurs commonly within families and typically results from a combination of genetic and environmental influences.
Professor Sarah Medland, Acting Head of our Mental Health Program, explains that it is quite a difficult disorder to diagnose.
‘Often people who have bipolar disorder present with depression first, so it can be terribly frustrating and can take many years to accurately diagnose.
‘For example, a person might experience depression on two or three occasions, but it’s not until they have a manic or hypomanic episode that it will become known that they have bipolar disorder,’ she said.
The Australian Genetics of Bipolar Disorder Study aims to discover the specific and heritable genes associated with the illness and to determine why some people respond to a certain medication but not others.
‘If we can discover the significant genes that are specific to bipolar disorder, we will be able to fast track people’s treatment plans. Our hope is that people could take a genetic screening test before being prescribed medication, with the view that people could be prescribed a potentially more-effective medication first and ultimately find a treatment that works faster for them,’ she said.
Likewise, for those people who are being treated for major depression but are not responding to medicine, doctors could consider prescribing bipolar disorder medications to people who screen positive for bipolar disorder, even before their patient has a manic episode.
Lithium is one of the most common medications prescribed to treat bipolar disorder and is one of the medications people are usually prescribed first.
However, about 30 per cent of people do not respond to lithium and an additional 20–30 per cent of people get some relief of symptoms, but they will find they experience other symptoms and/or have negative side effects.
‘If we were able to identify those people who are likely not to respond to lithium at the outset, then we could prescribe a different and potentially more-effective medication first,’ she said.
Professor Medland and the team are motivated to make a difference for individuals who are facing diagnostic uncertainty, particularly for individuals who are following their treatment plans, doing everything their doctors are advising, but are not seeing an improvement in their overall mental health.
The immediate aim of the study is to recruit as many individuals as possible who have been treated for bipolar and are willing to be a part of the study. If you choose to participate in the study there is an online survey to complete — similar to an online interview — which takes about 20–30 minutes. You then receive a DNA kit in the mail to submit a saliva sample, which you just send back in the reply paid envelope.
Professor Medland is incredibly grateful to all of the participants who choose to give their time and take part in this study — and any medical research studies.
‘We are hoping to recruit participants within the next six months, then it will take about a year to prepare the genetic data and complete the genetic analyses,’ she said.