Media Releases

For all media enquiries, please contact

Cracking the genetic code of bipolar disorder

Australian researchers are seeking 5,000 adults who have been treated for bipolar disorder to volunteer for the world’s largest genetic investigation into the chronic illness.

The groundbreaking Australian Genetics of Bipolar Disorder Study aims to identify the genes that predispose people to bipolar disorder, and how they respond to medication in order to develop more effective, personalised treatments, and ultimately, find a cure for the illness.

The researchers’ appeal for volunteers coincides with an article published today in MJA Insight, which highlights that a sizeable proportion of those living with bipolar disorder do not respond well to Lithium (lithium carbonate) – the mainstay treatment for mania discovered more than 60 years ago. The article argues that there is an urgent need to better predict patients’ responses to Lithium, and to find alternative treatments for those who do not respond.

The Federal Health Minister, mental health champions and everyday Australians are joining the researchers’ appeal for volunteers to help contribute 10 per cent of the overall (international) study population.

Approximately one in 50 Australians (1.8 per cent) will experience bipolar disorder during their lifetime. The complex disorder, which occurs commonly in families, typically results from a combination of genetic and environmental influences.

Those living with bipolar disorder may be at higher risk of developing other health issues, including alcohol and drug abuse, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. They also carry a 15 times greater risk of suicide than the general population, accounting for up to 25 per cent of all suicides.

The head of QIMR Berghofer’s Genetic Epidemiology Research Group, Professor Nick Martin, said researchers were seeking 5,000 male and female Australian volunteers aged 18 and older, who had been treated for bipolar disorder.

“The human genome contains around 20,000 genes. We just need a large enough study, performed in the right way, to identify which of those genes are increasing the risk of bipolar disorder,” Professor Martin said.

“Our study should improve our understanding of the biology of bipolar disorder and open the door to new treatments tailored to a person’s genetic make-up, to maximise effectiveness and minimise side-effects.”

The Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, is supporting the researchers in their appeal for Australian bipolar disorder study volunteers.

“For me, bipolar disorder is deeply personal. My mother lived with bipolar disorder, and the very last time I saw her, she was in institutional care with severe ramifications from the illness,” Mr Hunt said.

“This experience significantly shaped my focus on, and commitment to mental health, particularly with regard to bipolar disorder.

“Australia is helping to lead the world in researching and treating bipolar disorder. The experience and hard data that researchers can glean from being able to interview, and investigate those who have experienced bipolar disorder will help to both save and protect lives. I genuinely hope, and believe, this important study will help to transform thousands of lives over the coming decades.”

Co-Director for Health and Policy at Brain and Mind Centre, University of Sydney, Professor Ian Hickie AM said participation in the study was free and simple.

“Volunteers complete a 20-minute online survey, and those who qualify will be asked to donate a saliva sample,” Professor Hickie said.

“Identification of the genes that predispose people to bipolar disorder will revolutionise future research into the causes, treatment and prevention of the illness.”

The researchers will analyse DNA from saliva samples to identify specific genes associated with bipolar disorder. The knowledge will be used to improve current, and develop new treatments for bipolar disorder.

To volunteer for the Australian Genetics of Bipolar Disorder Study, head to, email or call 1800 257 179.

About bipolar disorder

  • Bipolar disorder is a chronic mental health condition, which results in strong changes in mood and energy levels.
  • People with bipolar disorder (which used to be called “manic depression”) can have depressive, and manic or hypomanic episodes, that can last a week or more, affecting their thoughts and behaviour. The illness requires long-term management, and can severely affect an individual’s ability to function in their daily life.
  • Bipolar disorder is the ninth leading contributor to the burden of disease and injury in Australia among females aged 15-24 years, and the 10th leading contributor for males of the same age. Australian research has shown that from the average age of symptom onset (17.5 years), there is a delay of approximately 12.5 years before a diagnosis of bipolar disorder is made.

Study participation

  • Study participation is strictly confidential.
  • After completing the online survey, participants may be asked to donate a saliva sample, from which researchers can extract their DNA to identify specific genes associated with bipolar disorder.
  • QIMR Berghofer researchers will send a saliva collection kit together with a pre-paid return envelope to selected participants.
  • QIMR Berghofer will biobank DNA from saliva samples for immediate and future genetic analysis under strict confidentiality, in accordance with the Commonwealth Privacy and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Guidelines.