Stem cells helping unlock some of the mysteries of bipolar disorder

One of the reasons cancer experts have been able to make big advances in recent years is because they can take a tumor and biopsy it and understand its makeup. With bipolar disorder – and indeed with any brain condition – we haven’t been able to do that because it’s considered bad form to biopsy a brain while someone is still using it.

But now, thanks to stem cells, and in particular thanks to the ones known as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells we can do just that; examine how a disease like bipolar disorder impacts the cells in the brain.

Part of the problem with treating bipolar disorder is that we don’t really know what causes it. But in a study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, researchers at the University of Michigan demonstrated a way to compare the neurons, or brain nerve cells, of people with the condition to those of people without.

They took skin samples from people with bipolar disorder and then turned, or reprogrammed, them into becoming iPS cells, which have the ability to become any other cell in the body. They then turned those iPS cells into neurons that showed differences in how they communicate amongst themselves compared to normal neurons.

In a news release accompanying the article, study co-leader Sue O’Brien talked about the significance of creating these new brain cells:

“This gives us a model that we can use to examine how cells behave as they develop into neurons. 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.”

The researchers hope this work will help them understand why bipolar disorder runs in families, even when no single gene appears to be the cause. The other hope, of course, is that this work will ultimately lead to new and improved treatments for the condition.

While we played no role in this study we are using a similar approach with our iPSC Bank Initiative, where we are taking blood or skin samples from thousands of individuals and turning them into stem cells. Because those cells will come from people with diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease and vision loss – as well as a variety of neurological conditions such as autism – they will enable us to create real-life models to study the diseases and to help us develop a deeper understanding of these conditions and hopefully lead to more effective treatments.

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