Bipolar disorder affects millions of Americans, causing dramatic swings in mood and, in some people, additional effects such as memory problems.
While bipolar disorder is linked to many genes, each one making small contributions to the disease, scientists don’t know just how those genes ultimately give rise to the disorder’s effects.
In a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers found for the first time that disruptions to a particular protein called Akt can lead to brain changes characteristic of bipolar disorder.
Akt is a kinase, a type of protein that adds tags of the molecule phosphate to other proteins. These phosphate tags can act as on or off switches, changing how other proteins work, ultimately influencing vital functions.
In neurons, those functions can include how cells signal to one another, which can affect thinking and mood. When the Akt pathway is revved up, a lot of other proteins get phosphate tags. When it’s quieter, those phosphate tags are absent.
In the study, the researchers discovered that men with bipolar disorder have reduced activity of this pathway, known at Akt-mTOR, in a brain region crucial for attention and memory.
And when the researchers disrupted the pathway in mice, the rodents developed memory problems and crucial brain connections withered away, simulating changes in humans with bipolar disorder.
The team says this loss of Akt pathway function in people with bipolar disorder is probably contributing to cognitive impairment.
The idea is that maybe researchers can target pathways like this one pharmacologically to help alleviate core symptoms of bipolar disorder.
If you care about mental health problems, please read studies about a common mental problem linked to faster development of Alzheimer’s disease and findings of this mental health issue may double your risk of dementia.
For more information about depression treatment and prevention, please see recent studies about how a popular supplement may help reduce depression and results showing that using these drugs to treat depression may cause higher death risk.
The study is published in Neuron. One author of the study is Michael Cahill.
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