Take a good look at yourself in the mirror and you’ll probably notice a few features you inherited from your parents. You may have your dad’s nose, your grandmother’s eyes, or your mother’s hair color. These attributes are all easy to spot, but there’s another genetic trait you may have inherited that won’t be as visible: a mood disorder.
Much like hair color, facial features, and other distinguishable traits, mood disorders run in families. The most severe of these disorders is manic depressive or bipolar disorder, where people experience extreme highs (mania) and extreme lows (depression).
Unfortunately, these emotional extremes also carry an increased risk of suicide. A review published in Molecular Psychiatry reported that on average, about 15% of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder die of suicide.
Even if bipolar disorder doesn’t run in your family, you probably know a friend, neighbor or co-worker whose life has been affected by it. The disease affects 1–2% of the population, but since it often goes undiagnosed, the number may be higher.
And if your parent or sibling suffers from the illness, your chance of having the disorder increases about 10-fold.
That’s why the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) is looking for families with a history of bipolar disorder to participate in a clinical study.
The purpose of the study
Because mood disorders affect so much of the population, NIH researchers want to better understand the biology of these illnesses. They hope to develop more effective ways to diagnose and treat them.
The ultimate goal? To find a cure.
The ideal candidates are families in which multiple people have a mood disorder. There are so many different genes that each family may have their own genetic cause for disorders. In some cases, the same genes can take different forms of the illness within the same family.
“Each family is a unique experiment of God and Nature,” says Dr. Francis J. McMahon of the NIMH, who leads the study. “We have learned a lot about the genetics of mood disorders over the last 10 years, but we still learn something new from almost every family.”
Why participate in the study?
Apart from benefiting future generations, there are other good reasons to participate in this study.
You’ll get an extensive mental health interview by professional clinicians and a written summary that you can share with your doctor. The study can also identify rare genes that may cause other problems (such as cancer and heart disease) if you’re interested in having that information.
No, you won’t get a comprehensive analysis of your genealogical line (this isn’t like those genetic testing kits you buy online). But if you’ve ever wondered why your family suffers from a long history of mental illness, this study could provide some answers. By thoroughly studying all genes and chromosomes, the NIMH researchers have identified a genetic change that probably explains the illness in 2% of families studied.
Perry Ridge, Ph.D. is a member of the Brigham Young University Biology Department. He said, “The most powerful genetic studies are performed in large families with multiple family members suffering from disease. Through a large collaborative study myself, and other researchers at Brigham Young University, intend to work with experts at the National Institutes of Health to study the genetics of bipolar disorder. In Utah, our relatively large nuclear and extended families give us a unique opportunity to contribute to this important research.”
What will the testing process look like?
First, you’ll be evaluated over the phone or via Zoom in a two-hour interview. You’ll provide records of psychiatric care (if you have them) and discuss relatives who struggle with mood disorders.
Next, a professional phlebotomist will come to your home to collect a blood sample for analysis. (If you don’t want to provide blood, you can give a saliva sample instead.)
The sample then goes to a laboratory where it’s separated for sequencing and put into a biorepository for future research. Samples are coded, so your personal information is kept safe.
Further research opportunities
If you want to participate in further research, you can provide an additional tube of blood that will go toward studying the impact of genes on the development and function of brain cells.
Thanks to new stem cell technology, researchers can actually grow brain cells from the blood cells participants donate. The extra sample you provide can help test new drugs that might help treat mood disorders.
What are the requirements for participating?
As mentioned above, NIH is ideally looking for large families with two to three people who have been diagnosed (or probably diagnosed) with bipolar disorder. This includes related disorders, such as major depression, schizophrenia, panic disorder, or schizo-affective disorder.
You can also take part in the study if you are closely related to an enrolled participant, even if you don’t have a mood disorder yourself.
You have to be 18 years old to participate, but there is no upper age limit.
How to sign up for the study
Bipolar disorder is a debilitating illness for many, but it affects everyone who has it, at least to some degree. With your help, future generations can fight the disease with more effective treatments—and eventually a cure.
If If you think your family may qualify for this study, visit this website for more information.