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Bipolar disorder risk genes identified

06 Mehefin 2007

School of Medicine scientists have opened the way to possible new treatments for bipolar disorder by starting to pinpoint the biological mechanisms involved in the illness.

The findings, made as part of the largest-ever study into the genetics of several common diseases, also offer hope to sufferers of other mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression.

The Cardiff team focussed on bipolar disorder as part of a UK-wide collaboration involving more than 200 scientists studying different diseases and analysing DNA from 17,000 people. Among those giving their DNA for the research was television personality Stephen Fry, who came to Cardiff to discuss his own struggle with bipolar disorder for a BBC television documentary last year.

The Cardiff researchers found that there are many genes which put an individual at greater risk of bipolar disorder, each gene on its own making a relatively small contribution to the risk. The results shed light on the biological systems behind bipolar disorder, which affects around 100 million people worldwide. For example, several of the identified genes play a key role in the way the nerve cells in our brains talk to each other.

The team’s discoveries will help pave the way for better diagnosis of mental disease and new treatments. Some new therapies will involve drugs, but others are likely to include education, lifestyle advice and talk-based treatments.

Professor Nick Craddock of the School of Medicine’s Department of Psychological Medicine, who led the Cardiff study, said: "This is the largest and most powerful genetic association study of bipolar disorder undertaken to date. The powerful molecular genetic approaches that we are using provide a window into the workings of the brain in those suffering from bipolar illness.

"The current focus of the government’s approach to severe mental illness often amounts to a pessimistic 'palliative care' model. With the ongoing scientific advances in understanding of illness we have the opportunity to make things very different for the next generation.

"This should be a time of great optimism for those individuals and families that have experienced illnesses like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression."

The £9M UK-wide study, co-ordinated by the Wellcome Trust, has involved analysis of almost 10 billion pieces of genetic information by 50 research teams over the past two years. Professor Craddock is a member of the consortium’s management committee. His team’s findings, along with significant discoveries about six other diseases, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, coronary heart disease and Crohn’s Disease have just been published in the journals Nature and Nature Genetics.