First Stem Cell Study Of Bipolar Disorder Hints At A Future Of Better, More Effective Treatments

This week, researchers announced that the first-ever stem cell study on bipolar disorder could result in better treatments for sufferers. The University of Michigan study, funded by a bipolar-research organization, took cells from bipolar patients, turned those cells into neurons, and then compared those cells to ones found in people who don't suffer from the disorder. Science!

The most surprising part of the study? How differently the bipolar cells communicated with each other and behaved, researchers found. The neurons especially responded differently to the influence of lithium, a common treatment for patients that can unfortunately cause a lot of negative side effects.

Researchers made the neurons using skin from people with bipolar disorder. Comparing the neurons to those of patients without the disorder made it possible to look at how the bipolar patients' neurons behaved and responded to medications differently.

Generally, bipolar disorder is considered a very challenging illness to treat. Patients respond unpredictably to medical treatment, and there is no cure. Melvin McInnis, the study's principal researcher and a professor of bipolar disorder at UM, explained in a video why treating bipolar patients has been so difficult in the past:

Bipolar disorder is ... very difficult to treat. Although we have a number of medications, the problematic thing with these medications is that we really do not have a method to determine which medication is best for a specific individual.

This research may change that, because it offers a direct look into how bipolar brain cells function in comparison to "normal" brain cells. Until the study, researchers had never looked specifically at differences in brain cell function and formation among those who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and those who have not, the University of Michigan said in a news release.

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Stem cells are unique because they contain the genetic code for lots of different types of cells, meaning researchers can do amazing things with them (like grow neurons, or, say, an entire organ.) The newer type of stem cell research used allows scientists to reprogram something like skin cells and turn them back into stem cells. Using those stem cells, they can grow many types of cells, like neurons.

That process basically allowed scientists to see inside the brains of patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Said Sue O'Shea, who discussed the research in the video released by UM:

We've taken skin samples, biopsies, from patients who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. We've reversed the clock and turned them into stem cells, and then used those stem cells to differentiate into neurons.

The study also found tiny differences in the way genes are expressed in patients with bipolar disorder. This finding supports the idea that bipolar disorder occurs in people with "a combination of genetic vulnerabilities," according to the release.