News Feature | March 26, 2014

Bipolar Disorder Benefits from Stem Cell Research

By Liisa Vexler

University of Michigan scientists have managed to create brain cells from embryonic-like stem cells that they have grown from individuals with bipolar disorder, and these brain cells are providing insight into some of the mysteries of the psychiatric condition. The new cells, which maintain the specific genetic information from the patients’ own cells, show different characteristics and behaviors than those from individuals without bipolar disorder.

“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," said lead scientist Sue O'Shea. The study published in Translational Psychiatry is one of the first to use stem cell research to examine a patient’s own cells to learn more about his or her medical condition.

Diseases of the mind are some of the hardest to study since the living brain is still such an enigma. Trying to create mental illness in laboratory animal experiments is difficult since determining presence of the disease is not specific.

In this study, researchers looked at induced pluripotent stem cells, also known as iPS cells. These cells are transformed from ordinary human skin cells into their state as just-conceived embryonic cells. The Michigan research team demonstrated differences in cell behavior between the cells taken from patients with bipolar disorder and those without the disorder. The cells they used became pluripotent, which means they can be transformed or “tricked” into becoming any type of cell. In this case, they were turned into neurons, a type of brain cell. “This gives us a model that we can use to examine how cells behave as they develop into neurons,” O’Shea explained.

Bipolar disorder, known as manic-depression in the past, affects approximately three percent of the world’s population. It is hereditary and is distinguished by distinct mood swings from depression to elation. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, in about 50% of cases, bipolar disorder takes hold before the patient turns 25. Existing treatments are still hit and miss and include lithium, antidepressants and antipsychotics.