Researchers are looking to certain U.S. states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, to better understand bipolar disorder—a mental illness that is often passed down through our genes.
Why look there? That's where many Amish and Mennonite families in the U.S. live. These families tend to have similar genes because they trace their families back to relatively few ancestors and traditionally marry and have children with one another.
Researchers at NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) hope that studying these families will explain how—and which—genes carry the disease.
"Bipolar disorder is one of the most strongly inherited mental illnesses, so we want to understand why people inherit these genes and come up with better ways to treat the disorder," says Francis McMahon, M.D.
Dr. McMahon is chief of the Human Genetics Branch at NIMH's Intramural Research Program. He helps oversee bipolar research at NIH.
Bipolar disorder causes people to have intense mood changes. These moods are stronger than just feeling happy or sad.
Many people are diagnosed with bipolar disorder as adults. But researchers now believe bipolar disorder can start before people are even born.
"We've always known that the risk was linked to genes, but we didn't know what kind of genes caused it," Dr. McMahon says.
Researching stem cells
By studying the genetic material (DNA) in Amish and Mennonite study participants, researchers can track differences in their genes and find out which particular genes increase the risk for bipolar disorder.
But that's just the first step.
Dr. McMahon and his team then use special human cells (stem cells) from these high-risk participants and turn them into brain cells.
While it sounds almost futuristic, the process could have a major impact on future research and treatment.
"Through this research, it's then possible to discover how bipolar genes actually change the brain," Dr. McMahon says. "These changes could show how genes carry the risk of bipolar disorder."
This research will also help us understand why a treatment may work for one patient—but not another.
While improving treatment is key, Dr. McMahon says finding a way to stop bipolar disorder is the ultimate goal.
"Medication can reduce the amount of bipolar episodes, but we also want to cure it," he says.
For people with bipolar disorder or those who just want to help improve research, Dr. McMahon encourages signing up for clinical studies.
"People need to be treated and need to be involved. Those are the best ways to keep a positive attitude about living with mental illness," he says.
A study called the Amish-Mennonite Bipolar Disorder Genetics Study (AMBiGen) needs volunteers.
The study will look at genetic differences that put us at risk for developing mental health issues, like bipolar disorder. Family members with and without mental health challenges are welcome to participate.
Interested in signing up? Call 1-866-644-4363 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.