Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental health condition that’s often characterised by extreme mood swings. Although its cause remains relatively unknown, our research looks at the role that genes play in how the disorder develops and how it is inherited.

Bipolar disorder is classified as a mood (or affective) disorder, and is characterised by mood swings from the extremes of elevated moods, called the manic phase, and low moods, called the depressive phase. Patients often experience normal moods between these extreme episodes.

In the depressive phase, individuals with bipolar disorder will have persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, guilt, anger, irritability, isolation and/or hopelessness, disturbances in sleep and appetite, fatigue and loss of interest in usually enjoyed activities, and morbid/suicidal ideation.

In the manic phase, an individual will have an increase in energy, grandiose or delusional ideas, racing thoughts, and a decreased need for sleep.

In addition to mood disturbance, an individual can also suffer from psychotic episodes, suffering a loss of contact with reality and may report hallucinations, delusions and exhibit personality changes.

Individuals suffering from bipolar disorder can exhibit different patterns of mood disturbance, with individual phases lasting days or months or being mainly manic or depressive in presentation, resulting in a clinical diagnosis of any of the six different forms of bipolar disorder.

Our research approaches

Our research focuses on identifying the genetic causes of bipolar disorder. We have been recruiting Australian families and individuals with bipolar disorder for more than 15 years to study the genetic transmission of DNA through individual family members.

The aim of this work is to identify regions of the genome which are commonly inherited in individuals who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as compared to family members who do not suffer from mood disturbance. 

We have so far developed biological maps for 65 families who we have psychiatrically assessed and taken blood samples for DNA analysis from.

Our research discoveries

We have identified a number of areas of the human genome which may contain susceptibility genes for bipolar disorder. Further detailed analysis of these areas pinpointed two genes which we believe increase a person’s risk in developing bipolar disorder.

Of particular interest is a gene involved in early brain development which, when defective, may result in inappropriate neuronal connections affecting brain plasticity. This gene defect may render the brain more vulnerable to secondary genetic and environmental insults into adulthood. 

We have completed a detailed classification of changes within this gene in individuals with bipolar disorder and are continuing our efforts to define the biological pathways involved, and to understand how alterations in these genes might equate to an increased genetic susceptibility. 

Our patient samples have also been used in large international collaborative studies aimed at identifying a range of common genetic susceptibility factors for bipolar disorder, as well as genes which affect response to Lithium, a common pharmacological treatment for bipolar disorder.

Bipolar Kids & Sibs Study

NeuRA took part in the Bipolar Kids & Sibs Study in partnership with the Black Dog Institute. This study was the biggest research study in the world focusing on genetic and environmental aspects of bipolar disorder. It followed young people aged 12-30 who had a first degree relative with bipolar disorder, in order to better understand how being at increased genetic risk for Bipolar Disorder affected their development, and whether specific elements of brain structure or function may help to predict which of these young people are likely to develop bipolar disorder themselves.

Results were published in Biological Psychiatry.

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