Is Bipolar Disorder Genetic? Causes and Risk Factor

The field of biotechnology has brought with it all kinds of scientific advancements, especially in the field of molecular biology. This, in turn, has ushered in an era of genetic engineering that has elucidated many things when it comes to genetics, genetic diseases, genes, inheritance, DNA and the genome, to name a few.

With this understanding came many questions, and some of these questions received answers while others did not. There is that constant question of which disease is genetic, and which is not. Through study is it possible to find out which disease is heritable, and which is not? Aren’t all diseases that are genetic also heritable?

Along those lines, here we ask the question of whether bipolar disorder is genetic or not. What are the genetics of bipolar disorder? Is it a disease or mental illness? Do medications help? And what is the risk of bipolar disorder?

But before we go into these areas, let’s first talk about what bipolar disorder is and then about whether it is genetic or not.

Bipolar disorder is a schizoaffective disorder and was previously known as manic depression. It is defined as a mood condition whereby moods swing from one extreme high to another extreme low. The condition is marked by periods of depression, whereby individuals feel low and lethargic. The other end of the extreme is mania, that is marked by high and overactive feelings. Bipolar disorder mood extremes (mania/ hypomania and depression) are very different from simple mood swings. Depending on which mood is experienced, the symptoms may last for a very long time. This means that people who suffer from bipolar disorder may feel a certain mood for a very long period of time and they may not feel “normal” very often.

More specifically, the depressive episodes of individuals with bipolar disorder are marked by bad and/or low moods, feelings of hopelessness, extreme sadness as well as a lack of either interest and/or satisfaction in things, people and daily activities. The early warning signs for bipolar disorder associated depression include but are not limited to an increase in irritability, loss of sleep or too much sleep, reduced appetite, lack of motivation and concentration as well as withdrawal. On the other end of the extreme is mania. Manic or hypomanic episodes are marked by an extremely happy mood as well as activity, racing thoughts and speech as well as very little need for sleep. Early warning signs of bipolar disorder associated mania include several. Some of them are a lack of ability to concentrate, not sleeping, a surge of energy and a desire to make plans, rapid thoughts and speech as well as an increased sexual drive and flirtatiousness.

Depression and mania

Like other diseases such schizophrenia, by virtue of its symptoms (depression and mania), bipolar disorder is difficult to diagnose and is often misdiagnosed into a category of simply depression. By virtue of that, people with bipolar disorder often go untreated for long periods of time and the risk factors are not observed. Furthermore, bipolar disorder does not come alone. It is often followed by several other mood disorders such as anxiety (panic attacks), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as well as substance abuse.

The term bipolar disorder does not refer to just one condition. In fact, it is a kind of umbrella term that refers to a group of mental health problems. The several other types of bipolar disorder include bipolar I and II disorder, cyclothymic disorder, other specified and unspecified bipolar disorders, bipolar disorder that has been induced by substance or drug abuse and bipolar and related disorder because of another medical condition. For the purposes of this article, however, let’s just focus on the general definition described above. The prevalence is quite high, with an estimated 2.4% global and 4% US-based frequency.

So, now that you know a bit about bipolar disorder and what it is, let’s address the genetic aspect a bit and whether or not genetic risk factors are involved. While some genetic markers have been found to be mildly associated with bipolar disorder through study, a clear genetic pathway remains to be elucidated. As a result of this unclear genetic basis, some studies have suggested that each one of the many genetic markers that otherwise have a small effect contribute to the overall result, rather than one or two concrete genetic mutations that are sure to cause the condition. Along those lines, because bipolar disorder has so many factors as well as several genetic variation contributions, it has been termed as a common complex multigenic condition. This makes it even more difficult to treat and optimize the therapeutic approach.

By virtue of bipolar disorder being a complex multigenic condition, inheritance patterns are even more difficult to discern. What does seem to be know is that the risk of developing the condition is much higher among first-degree relatives of individuals who have it. What has also been noted is that this inheritance patters varies among families. In other words, while the chances of a first-degree relative inheriting bipolar disorder may be high in one family, that is not always the case for another family. What is known for sure, however, is that many of those who suffer from bipolar disorder do have a family member who is also suffering from a mood, anxiety of psychotic disorder, such as depression or schizophrenia. However, given that these kinds of conditions are so frequent within the general population, it comes as no surprise that more than one case is ailing certain families.

Overall, the question of whether bipolar disorder is genetic or not is difficult to answer. There are some genetic variants that point to a risk, and yet there is no concrete gene-phenotype association that could be used as a way to screen for the disorder. However, given the speed at which biotechnology is ushering advancements in genetic engineering, it would come as no a surprise to see efforts geared toward this direction.

Laura Day