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Your bipolar disorder medication may actually be nudging hundreds of genes that direct your brain to behave more normally. This is according to new research published in a recent issue of the journal Bipolar Disorders, which suggests that antipsychotic drugs activate a wide range of genes, changing their function.
According to lead author Dr. Melvin McInnis, a professor of bipolar disorder and depression at the School of Medicine at the University of Michigan, ‘A gene’s activity in any given cell will vary depending on what it’s exposed to.’ However, the scientists were one of a rare bunch of wellness experts who have managed to stumble upon something in research that they totally weren’t expecting to see. ‘It was a major surprise to us that people treated with an antipsychotic [medication] had changes in the gene expression pattern,’ McInnis said.
For the study, the researchers examined 26 brains donated to a non-profit brain bank, twelve of which were from those with no mental health condition and the other fourteen were from people who had bipolar disorder. Half of these were from people who had been taking one or more antipsychotic medications – such as clozapine, risperidone and haloperidol – when they died. The scientists found that the genes of those that had been exposed to antipsychotics at the were similar to those from people who did not have bipolar disorder, which may help point the way to new gene-targeted and stem cell therapies in this area of mental health.
However, Dr Francis McMahon, chief of the human genetics branch at the NIMH Intramural Research Programme, expressed some concerns about the study. McMahon, who was not involved in the research, commented, ‘It’s still not known if these changes just happen to occur or play a key role in the therapeutic effect. Patients [with bipolar disorder] are exposed to antidepressants, drugs of abuse, and other medications, and we don’t have medication exposure data on the brains [of the people without bipolar disorder].’
Yet, McInnis still asserts that the research is a clear step toward a radical evolution in the design of drugs for psychiatric conditions. He noted, ‘A lot of these psychiatric illnesses fluctuate, but now we give medications at a constant rate, almost as if we were giving a diabetic the same amount of insulin no matter what the person’s blood sugar is. Medications as we know them will change based on our understanding of the biological mechanisms behind disease.’