Genetic inheritance is not everything, according to J. Craig Venter, pioneering genetic scientist responsible for sequencing the human genome in 2001:
“Human biology is actually far more complicated than we imagine. Everybody talks about the genes that they received from their mother and father, for this trait or the other. But in reality, those genes have very little impact on life outcomes. Our biology is far too complicated for that and deals with hundreds of thousands of independent factors. Genes are absolutely not our fate. They can give us useful information about the increased risk of a disease, but in most cases they will not determine the actual cause of the disease, or the actual incidence of somebody getting it. Most biology will come from the complex interaction of all the proteins and cells working with the environmental factors, not driven directly by the genetic code.”
Two studies that incorporated data from more than 50 labs worldwide have linked mutations in more than 100 different genes to autism. Scientists have a high level of statistical confidence that mutations in about 60 of those genes are responsible for autism. So-called de novo mutations (Latin for “afresh”) do not appear in the genes of parents without autism, but arise newly in the affected child. The mutations can alter whether the genes get “turned on” or transcribed (or not), leading to disturbances in the brain’s communication networks.
The studies led by Stephan Sanders and Matthew W. State appeared in the journal Nature in late 2014. The identified genes fall into three categories. Some affect the formation and function of synapses, where messages between neurons are relayed. Others affect transcription, the process by which genes instruct cells to produce proteins. Genes in the third category affect chromatin, a sort of packaging for DNA in cells.
Before the new studies, only 11 genes had been linked to autism, and the researchers involved expect to find that hundreds more are related to the illness.
Editor’s Note: This new research explains how autism could be increasing in the general population even as most adults with autism do not have children. It should also put to rest the idea, now totally discredited, that ingredients in childhood immunizations cause autism. It is clearer than ever that kids who will be diagnosed with autism are born with these mutations.
With these genetic findings, the search for new medications to treat this devastating illness should accelerate even faster.
Bottom line: Childhood immunizations don’t cause autism, newly arising mutations in the DNA of parents’ eggs or sperm do. However, parental behavior could put their children and others at risk for the measles and other serious diseases if they do not allow immunizations. The original data linking autism to immunization were fraudulent, and these new data on the genetic origins of autism provides the best hope for future treatments or prevention.
In a six-month study of Caucasian patients, normal variations in the gene that is responsible for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) predicted whether patients would respond better to a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant versus a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) or a tricycle antidepressant. There are several common variants of the BDNF gene, depending on which types of amino acids appear in its coding—valine or methionine. Patients with the most common version, two valines (or Val66Val), responded better to SSRIs. About two-thirds of the population has this version of the gene, which functions most efficiently. The remaining third have at least one methionine in the BDNF gene. Patients with a Met variation responded better to SNRIs and tricyclic antidepressants.
The study by R. Colle and colleagues was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2015. Of the patients who were prescribed SSRIs, 68.1% of patients with the Val/Val version responded to the medication after three months, compared to 44% of the patients with a Met version. Of patients prescribed SNRIs or tricyclics, 60.9% of the Met patients reached remission by six months, compared to only 33.3% of the Val/Val patients.
Editor’s Note: In an earlier BNN we reported that according to research published by Gonzalo Laje and colleagues in the journal Biological Psychiatry in 2012, depressed patients with the better functioning Val66Val allele of BDNF respond best to ketamine, while those with the intermediate functioning Val66Met allele respond less well.
While attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is fairly common among people with bipolar disorder, the genetic risks of inheriting these two illnesses run separately in families. In a recent study of 465 people and 563 of their first-degree relatives by Susan Shur-Fen Gau and colleagues, people with bipolar I disorder were likely to have relatives with bipolar I disorder, and people with ADHD were likely to have relatives with ADHD, but ADHD did not increase risk of bipolar disorder and vice versa.
The researchers hypothesize that other reasons people might develop both disorders include developmental precursors to the illnesses, neurocognitive functioning, sleep problems, and personality traits such as impulsivity and disinhibition.
Editor’s Note: At a recent scientific meeting, Gau and her colleague Kathleen Merikangas said that people with bipolar disorder in the study were five times more likely to have relatives with bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder and ADHD were comorbid in 37.8% of those with bipolar I disorder, 16.4% in bipolar II disorder, 14% in depression, and 1.1% in normal controls.
Carbamazepine (also known by its trade name Tegretol or, for extended release, Equetro) is one of the most widely used drugs for the treatment of epilepsy, and is relatively underutilized in the treatment of bipolar disorder. One of the reasons is fear of a rare serious rash or other side effects.
The risk of the serious rash ranges from about one in 5,000 to one in 10,000. Loss of white blood cells that fight infection (a condition called agranulocytosis) occurs in about one in 20,000 people taking carbamazepine, while a decrease in white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets (aplastic anemia) occurs in about one in 100,000 patients.
There is no way of predicting who will develop the blood disorders in reaction to carbamazepine use. A patient should contact their doctor and get a white blood cell count if they develop some warning signs of these conditions, such as a fever or sore throat without other explanation or signs of bleeding or red spots under the skin (called petechiae) that could indicate low platelets.
Genetic Test for Risk of Rash
A genetic test is available that can help estimate the likelihood of the serious rash among certain populations. In those of Asian descent, particularly Han Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, and Indian populations, having a version of the gene HLA-B known as HLA-B*1502 is highly associated with developing the rash. (The odds ratio was 79.84 in a 2013 meta-analysis by Tangamornsuksan et al. in the journal JAMA Dermatology).
In those of northern European or Japanese descent, having a version of the gene HLA-A known as HLA-A*3101 is associated with the severe rash. (Odds ratio for developing the most severe rash was 25.93 in a study of Europeans published by McCormack et al. in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011 and 10.8 in a study of Japanese published by Ozeki et al. in the journal Human Molecular Genetics in 2011). This HLA-A*3101 gene is present in about 2 to 5% of Europeans and 9% of Japanese.
A mild, non-serious rash with redness and itchiness occurs in about 5 to 10% of patients taking carbamazepine, and almost always goes away quickly upon stopping the drug. For patients taking carbamazepine who develop any rash, stopping the drug is the safest and most conservative thing to do. However, those who have taken the HLA test who know they do not have the risk genes and have only the benign rash might want to consider continuing to take the drug.
Benefits of Carbamazepine
There are a number of reasons why carbamazepine may be worthy of a treatment trial in patients with bipolar disorder who are not doing well on other agents. Carbamazepine works well in many patients with bipolar illness who have some of the common clinical predictors of a poor response to lithium. These include: having dysphoric (anxious, irritable) rather than euphoric mania, having an anxiety or substance disorder comorbidity, having had many prior episodes or rapid cycling (four or more episodes/year), not having distinct episodes with a period of wellness in between, having a sequential pattern of depression followed by mania followed by a well interval (D-M-I rather than M-D-I), having a schizoaffective disorder with delusions or hallucinations that persist after a manic or depressive episode has ended, and having no family history of mood disorders (especially bipolar disorder).
Some patients who do not respond to another anticonvulsant such as valproate do respond to carbamazepine. Patients with bipolar depression who have had a prior history of alcoholism may also do particularly well on carbamazepine. A benefit of the long-acting version of carbamazepine called Equetro is that it can be taken at bedtime and thus help with sleep and minimize daytime side effects.
Editor’s Note: Carbamazepine induces liver enzymes called CYP3A4 that increase the metabolism (breakdown) of carbamazepine and other drugs. Several drugs that inhibit 3A4 (such verapamil and erythromycin) prevent the breakdown of carbamazepine, causing blood levels of the drug to increase and produce side effects. If you are taking carbamazepine, tell your pharmacist so he or she can monitor any other drugs you are taking for potential interactions with carbamazepine.
Knowing about the rare skin and blood side effects of carbamazepine and some of the clinical predictors of a good response to the drug may be helpful in determining whether the potential benefits of carbamazepine outweigh the risks.
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein in the brain that protects neurons and is necessary for long-term memory and learning. Different people have different genetic variations in BDNF depending on which amino acid the gene that codes for it inserts into the protein, valine or methionine. There are three possible combinations that vary in their efficiency. The Val66Val allele of BDNF is the most efficient for secreting and transporting BDNF within the cell body to synapses on dendrites, and is also a risk factor for early onset of bipolar disorder and rapid cycling. Twenty-five percent of the population has a Met variant (either Val66Met or Met66Met), which functions less efficiently. These people have mild decrements in some cognitive processing.
Increases in BDNF are necessary to the antidepressant effects of intravenous ketamine. In animals, ketamine also rapidly changes returns dendritic spines that had atrophied back to their healthy mushroom shape in association with its antidepressant effects. According to research published by Gonzalo Laje and colleagues in the journal Biological Psychiatry in 2012, depressed patients with the better functioning Val66Val allele of BDNF respond best to ketamine, while those with the intermediate functioning Val66Met allele respond less well.
Researcher Ronald S. Duman of Yale University recently found that increases in BDNF in the medial prefrontal cortex are necessary to the antidepressant effects of ketamine. If antibodies to BDNF (which block its effects) are administered to the prefrontal cortex, antidepressant response to ketamine is not observed.
Duman also found that calcium influx through voltage sensitive L-type calcium channels is necessary for ketamine’s antidepressant effects. A genetic variation in CACNA1C, a gene that codes for a subunit of the dihydropiridine L-type calcium channel, is a well-replicated risk factor for bipolar disorder. One might predict that those patients with the CACNA1C risk allele, which allows more calcium influx into cells, would respond well to ketamine.
No one gene explains the risk of developing bipolar disorder. Many genes are involved, each with a small effect. However, the effects of one particular gene have been validated in multiple different ways. The gene is called CACNA1C, and it codes for one subunit of the dihydropyridine L-type calcium channel. Calcium channels are structures on the membranes of neurons that allow calcium to enter cells and alter their excitability.
Different people can have different variants of the CACNA1C gene, depending on which nucleotides appear there: valine (Val) or methionine (Met). One particular variant (known as the Met/Met single nucleotide polymorphism, rs1006737) has been associated with executive function deficits compared to the Val/Val variant in multiple tests in patients with bipolar disorder. Executive function refers to abilities like planning, organizing, and retaining information. This was reported by Soeiro-de-Souza et al. in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica in 2013.
Importantly, CACNA1C has also been linked to risk of bipolar disorder, a finding that was replicated in several large genome-wide association studies (GWAS). Autopsy studies of people who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder show more calcium channels in their brains. The Met/Met variant of the CACNA1C gene also lets more calcium ions into cells. Those who have the gene variant also show differences in some brain structures known to be involved in the modulation of emotions compared to those without the variant.
In addition to these findings, more than a dozen studies report increased intracellular calcium in the white blood cells of people with bipolar disorder compared to controls. To the extent that these increases in intracellular calcium reflect changes in neurons, this would be consistent with the findings about CACNA1C. High levels of calcium influx and the associated intracellular calcium may increase cellular excitability and potentially dysregulate normal neuronal functioning.
The final piece of evidence linking altered calcium channel regulation to bipolar disorder is a direct therapeutic test of a drug that blocks calcium influx through the dihydropyridine L-type calcium channel. There is evidence that nimodipine, which selectively blocks dihydropyridine L-type calcium channels, has therapeutic effects in bipolar disorder.
A mutation in a gene related to circadian rhythms may help explain bipolar disorder. Animals with a mutation in the gene, known as CLOCK, typically exhibit behaviors that mimic human mania, such as increased locomotor activity and decreased anxiety.
Stress can lead to depression in bipolar patients, so researcher Nicole Edgar et al. exposed animals with the mutated “manic” version of the CLOCK gene to unpredictable chronic mild stress. The stress brought about decreased locomotor activity and increased anxiety, mimicking a switch into depression. These data suggest that alterations in CLOCK genes may provide a useful model for both mania and depression.
The research was presented at the 2013 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, and the abstract (#471) can be found in the meeting supplement, Volume 73, Number 9S of the journal Biological Psychiatry.
In another abstract (#472) at the same meeting, researcher Wilbur Williams et al. reported that alterations in related clock genes (that result in decreases in the proteins CRY-1 and SIRT1) are associated with manic-like behavior that could be reversed using lithium. These data further suggest that clock genes may provide a useful model for bipolar disorder.
As young mice transition into adolescence, they experience a “sensitive” period in which their context-based fear memories are temporarily suppressed. In a recent study, young animals learned to avoid an environment associated with a mild shock. Later, when they entered adolescence, this learning was temporarily forgotten or suppressed. However, when the same mice aged into adulthood, they reacquired this learned fear memory and began to again avoid the environment associated with the earlier shock. This temporary loss of fear memory differs in mice depending on their genes.
At the 2012 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, researcher Francis S. Lee reported that mice with a certain genetic variation display an impairment of this fear memory process. There are several common variants of the gene responsible for the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which protects neurons and is necessary for long-term memory. Mice with the poorer functioning variant known as Val66Met (as opposed to the better functioning Val66Val) fail to recall the earlier fear-related events not only in adolescence, but also in adulthood when the fear memory is usually retrievable again.
Editor’s Note: In mice and humans, Val66Val is the most frequently occurring allele in the population, but Val66Met is also a fairly common variation of the BDNF gene. It is this Val66Met allele that is associated with not retaining earlier learned experience about a “dangerous” environment that should be avoided.
These data suggest an intriguing explanation for some of the “wild” behavior and poor judgment to which even the smartest adolescents are prone. This kind of behavior may be based in part on the temporary forgetting in adolescence of earlier learning about which situations or environments are safe versus which ones are dangerous. Read more
A Genetic Risk Factor For Bipolar Disorder: The CACNA1C Gene
In an abstract presented at the 5th Biennial Conference of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, Sophia Frangou reported on the CACNA1C polymorphism, a genetic variation that has been associated with the risk of developing bipolar disorder in several genome-wide association studies that search for links between genes and illnesses. Frangou found that those people with the genetic variation had increased volume in some parts of the brain, including the right hypothalamus and the right amygdala, and decreased volume in others, including the putamen, as well as alterations in the functional connectivity of different cortical areas.
These data may be related to findings that calcium influx may play a role in bipolar disorder. In people with the genetic variation, the risk allele binds to a subunit of the voltage-dependent calcium channel, which modulates the influx of calcium from the outside to the inside the neuron.
Increased amounts of calcium are consistently found in the white cells and platelets of patients with bipolar disorder compared to controls. Moreover, the drug nimodipine, a dihydropyridine L-type calcium channel blocker, is effective in the prevention of manic and depressive episodes in a subgroup of patients, particularly those with cycling patterns that are ultra-rapid (4+ episodes per month) or ultradian (including a mood switch within a 24-hour period 4+ times per month). A large randomized study of patients with bipolar disorder presented by H.R. Chaudhry at the 2010 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry also found that while lithium was associated with a 50% response rate, the combination of lithium and nimodipine was associated with a 73% response rate, again suggesting the additional efficacy of blocking L-type calcium channels.
Immune Abnormalities May Predict Onset of Bipolar Disorder in Children at High Risk
At the 5th Biennial Conference of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders E. Mesman discussed connections between immunity and bipolar disorder. Mesman and colleagues followed offspring of parents with confirmed bipolar disorder for 12 years and compared them to children in the general population. In the children of bipolar parents they found higher levels of immune markers called cytokines (PTX3 and sCD25) in circulating monocytes, a type of white blood cell. In the children of bipolar parents they also found a high inflammatory setpoint in the monocytes. T-effector and T-regulatory cells were also different in the offspring of bipolar parents.
While these findings were present in children who had already become ill with bipolar disorder, they were also present in those who had yet to experience a mood disorder, suggesting that these immune and inflammatory markers may ultimately be an important risk marker for the onset of bipolar disorder.
Editor’s Note: These are among the first studies suggesting that immune and inflammatory abnormalities may precede the onset of bipolar disorder. Many studies have shown that patients with active bipolar disorder show more inflammation, including increases in inflammatory markers interleukin 1 (IL-1), interleukin 6 (IL-6), C reactive protein (CRP), and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFa). The new data are of considerable importance not only because inflammation could serve as a marker of illness onset, but also because inflammation could become a potential target for therapeutics (i.e. using anti-inflammatory and immune-suppressing agents to treat bipolar disorder).