Understanding the Role of Genetics in Bipolar Disorder: What We Know So Far

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a psychiatric condition that affects approximately 2.6% of the US population. It is a complex disorder that is influenced by both environmental and genetic factors. In recent years, scientists have made significant progress in understanding the role of genetics in bipolar disorder. In this article, we will explore what we know so far about the genetic basis of bipolar disorder.

The Genetic Basis of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a heritable condition, meaning that it runs in families. The heritability of bipolar disorder is estimated to be between 60-85%, indicating that genetic factors play a significant role in the development of the disorder. Multiple genes are thought to contribute to the development of bipolar disorder, each with a small effect on its own.

One of the most studied genes in bipolar disorder is the CACNA1C gene. This gene produces a calcium channel protein that is involved in the regulation of neurotransmitter release in the brain. Variants of this gene have been found to be associated with an increased risk of bipolar disorder, as well as schizophrenia and major depressive disorder. Other genes that have been linked to bipolar disorder include ANK3, DAOA, and CLOCK.

However, it is important to note that genetic factors are not the sole cause of bipolar disorder. Environmental factors, such as stress and trauma, can also play a role in the development of the disorder. Furthermore, genetics can influence the likelihood of an individual developing bipolar disorder, but it does not guarantee that they will develop the disorder.

The Role of Epigenetics

In addition to genetics, epigenetics also plays a role in the development of bipolar disorder. Epigenetics refers to changes in gene expression that are not caused by alterations in the DNA sequence itself. These changes can be influenced by environmental factors, such as stress, and can affect how genes are expressed in the brain.

Recent research has suggested that epigenetic changes may be involved in the development and progression of bipolar disorder. Studies have shown that individuals with bipolar disorder have altered patterns of DNA methylation, which is an epigenetic modification that regulates gene expression. Furthermore, animal studies have demonstrated that changes in DNA methylation can lead to behaviors that resemble symptoms of bipolar disorder.


In conclusion, the genetic basis of bipolar disorder is complex and involves multiple genes that each have a small effect on their own. While genetic factors are an important contributor to the development of the disorder, environmental factors and epigenetics also play a role. Understanding the genetic and epigenetic basis of bipolar disorder can help researchers develop new treatments and interventions for individuals with the disorder.