In comparing the brains, the scientists observed that the genes of those that had been exposed to antipsychotics at the time of death or during their lifetime were similar to those from people who did not have bipolar disorder. This suggests that the drugs may normalize or suppress the kinds of brain pathology one would expect in bipolar disorder, according to the researchers.
The study also supports the idea that the ability of brain cells to effectively communicate with each other may be impaired in people with bipolar disorder. The researchers found that the brains of people who were taking antipsychotics and those who did not have bipolar disorder showed striking similarities in how their brains relayed signals between cell gaps, or synapses, and on high-speed neuronal "freeways" called the nodes of Ranvier.
While antipsychotic medications can often be effective in moderating the effects of bipolar disorder, the side effects are often difficult for people to deal with. These include metabolic syndrome -- a combination of symptoms that increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes -- as well as weight gain, increased blood sugar levels, and tremors, McInnis said.
However, one expert expressed some concerns about the study.
"It's still not known if these changes just happen to occur or play a key role in the therapeutic effect," said Dr. Francis McMahon, chief of the human genetics branch at the NIMH Intramural Research Program.
McMahon also noted that the researchers don't have data on what medications the brains were exposed to during their lifetimes. "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]."
For his part, study author McInnis said the research represents a step toward a radical evolution in the design of dru
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