Welcome to Chipur! If you’re struggling with a mood or anxiety disorder, you’ve come to a good place. Dig-in, okay? Thank you for stopping-by. Bill

Bipolar Disorder: The ‘Exciting’ and ‘Comforting’ Brain Neuron Connection

What causes bipolar disorder

Thirty years ago, still in the grasp of merciless anxiety and panic, I finally came to know the workings of my brain were, well, funky. Since then, I’ve done all I could to understand the how’s and why’s of it all.  And I’ve always found that comforting. Is bipolarity of interest to you? Perhaps I can provide some of the same comfort…

After a few months, it’s possible that this hyperexcitability becomes too much for the cell to handle and it crashes into a less excitable state. That could signal the shift between the depression and mania that patients experience.

So the “knowledge is power” thing. Can sure come off cliche; however, when it comes to what ails us, there’s really a lot to it.

Man, I was hurting badly all those years ago. And one of my cherished comforts was gaining insight into the biological reasons behind it all. It assured me I wasn’t suffering from some sort of cruelly nebulous plague.

Yeah, that was always a relief.

So, how ’bout we see what we can do about understanding a bit of what’s behind bipolar disorder – and pave the way for some comfort and relief, should you be in the grasp?

(By the way, I prefer using the term “bipolarity,” as I believe it’s not as cut and dried as bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymic disorder. But since the study we’re going to discuss goes with “bipolar disorder,” so will we.)

Bipolar Disorder and Sensitive Brain Neurons

So a new study from a Salk Institute for Biological Studies research team is one of the first to reveal the connection between bipolar disorder and neurons in the brain, and that brain cells of those with bipolar disorder are much more sensitive to stimuli than the brain cells of others.

But the study did more than that, revealing why some patients respond to lithium, while others don’t.

The study results were published last month in the journal Nature.

From Salk genetics lab professor and senior study author Rusty Gage…

Researchers hadn’t all agreed that there was a cellular cause to bipolar disorder. So our study is important validation that the cells of these patients really are different.

If you have any experience at all with bipolar disorder, you know it can be a treatment nightmare. I mean, it’s a meds crap-shoot featuring lithium, atypical antipsychotics, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants.

Well, in endeavoring to get to the very foundation of the cause(s) of bipolar disorder, Gage and team collected skin cells from six patients with the disorder. And they moved-on to reprogramming the cells to become stem cells, and coaxed them to develop into neurons.

And then it was on to comparing those neurons to those of folk who had never been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The results? According to study first author Jerome Mertens…

Neurons are normally activated by a stimuli and respond. The cells we have from all six patients are much more sensitive in that you don’t need to activate them very strongly to see a response.

And, by the way, the power-supplying mitochondria inside the cells were more active, as well.

The Lithium Factor

Of the six study patients, three had responded well to lithium. It did nothing for the remaining three patients. So now it was about determining how the patient’s cells actually reacted to lithium. To do this, the study team let some of the neurons grow in liquid containing lithium and re-measured how sensitive the cells were.

Go figure, though neurons from both groups sure seemed identical (and equally sensitive) in the initial tests, they behaved differently when exposed to the lithium.

Seems the cells from the lithium-responding patients showed weakened excitability after growing in the lithium. And it follows, then, that the cells from the patients who hadn’t been helped by lithium remained hyperexcitable.

Co-author John Kelsoe explains…

The stem cell-derived neurons were three to four times more electrically active than control cells and tended to burn themselves out. This was reversed by treatment with lithium, but only in cells that came from patients who had responded to lithium.

Now, sure, the study findings don’t explain why lithium works for some patients and not for others. However, it offers a great starting-point in determining differences between cells. And, certainly, the bipolar neurons also create a platform from which more in-depth bipolar disorder questions can be asked (and answered?).

Okay, great – and what’s that to us? From Mertens…

Now that we have neurons that show differences in excitability, we can use these to screen for better drugs. If a new drug, for instance, reverses the hyperexcitability at the cellular level, it would likely treat bipolar disorder in patients.

Next, Gage and Martens plan to follow the affected cells for longer periods of time to see whether the hyperexcitability they measured is only an initial manic stage of neurons’ lives, or is longer-lasting.

And that’s huge, because according to Gage…

After a few months, it’s possible that this hyperexcitability becomes too much for the cell to handle and it crashes into a less excitable state. That could signal the shift between the depression and mania that patients experience.

Wow! Now we’re talking holy grail.

That’s All, Folks

If you endure bipolar disorder, is this knowledge powerful for you? Yes, I know it doesn’t provide immediate symptom relief or help you avoid the meds crap-shoot. But it does provide a plausible explanation as to why bipolarity occurs, and it’s not some sort of cruelly nebulous plague.

I can attest to just how comforting that can be. And you know what else? Knowing research like this is being conducted fuels hope.


Would you like to peruse more Chipur mood and anxiety disorder titles? Please do.

  • late turkey day rant. bipolar! oh, no!

    i am not sure what my take away is from this is, bill.

    so some of us are uniquely different and sensitive? ok. i can appreciate that. but as any highly sensitive person knows, it is a high maintenance gift and, i agree, lithium might help.

    cells communicate via h20. lithium is an elemental mineral so i will just say it conducts energy/electricity via water. energy which, i think, is mainly generated by mitochondria this way, ala redox signaling, which i won’t go into now, but that is what i feel you are actually talkin bout, bill. your antennae are up and aware.

    did you know lithium is an antioxidant? i use antioxidants to reduce my anxiety. so bingo. another piece.

    you make no reference to forms of lithium. i think one can drink pink salt and obtain lithium (check this, not sure). lithium hurts the thyroid; pink salt supports the thyroid…

    in the disease mthfr, we use lithium to make b12, which is strongly antidepressant, more powerful, not to reduce anxiety. we also drink pink slt water.

    but they do go hand on hand. as an antioxidant lithium reduces my glutamate allowing me to relax a bit, be less anxious. but the antidepressant effect is just as important especially depending on your form of bipolarity. i love my form of b12 and i know why.

    also, please differentiate between elemental lithium which is dosed in minute amounts and psych lithium, which has hi side effects. very big difference. and, how about those who live near and drink naturally occurring lithium springs? are they less bipolar? i bet they are.

    and as you know and infer here, bipolar can well be genetic. maybe i should say it is genetic/epigenetic, that the genes exist and some thing turns them on, “negatively. ” that is why some respond to lithium and some do not. and why in mthfr, other neuro transmitter mutations, and all mutation treatments, we say start low and go slow. so to see if 5 mg. of elemental lithium helps, go to the health food store and try it for a day or two. that is all it should take if you are nutritionally deficient. anything more, see a doc, please. cheap. safe. but do see a doc if you do not feel better. i mean that. unlike psych meds, you should notice very easily and soon. doubt me? do your research first. and this is ill white’s forum; he can say whatever he needs to about my recommending this. i say it is safe.

    not sure what excites you here, bill. that it is a simple element that differs? well, yes, that is pretty revolutionary if you do not combine it with a lot of questionable extras as psych meds do. as mthfr 677 homo, i am very sensitive to these. perhaps the blessing of this disease and maybe what you are trying to get at? that our sensitivity is a blessing?

    so, some of us may be highly sensitive in regions of our brains. is that what are you implying here?
    and lithium may help? beyond what i just said, i do not understand.

    yes, some are more sensitive. yes, lithium may calm some of this sensitivity. totally agree. again, i do not understand what your excitement is about. is it that you find it amazing that an essential element, for some, is not present for some with especially sensitive brains? while i feel we may agree i miss citations to what you are referring to and a sense of the forms of lithium. sorry, my social defience is up and i have taken my lithium. must be some other disease.

    i just don’t get what is so exciting here. being highly sensitive as a gift? that none of this was known when you were so mired in your own disease? that we all are our own best doctors? that some may lack what may be an essential element?

    rambling on and i agree, with some caveats. the forms of lithium and the impact on personal genetics. things you actually said a bit. thanks, bill.

    note: my comments are not cited in the main as they are based on my experience, thus anectodal .