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Manchester research finds hope for bipolar treatment

Everyone has shifts in mood throughout the day, but for people suffering from bipolar disorder some days the shift can be from manic highs to depressing lows. Treatment of the disorder is very patient-specific and involves a wide range of psychotherapy, social therapy and intervention with medication. The best-established class of drugs for treating people who suffer from the disorder are lithium salts. But they aren’t without their side effects; these include nausea, acne, muscle weakness and tremors. Such side effects are experienced because the lithium salts have a wide range of targets within a cell and this lack of specificity has many knock-on effects in the body.

Patients using the salts treatment show reduced erratic behaviour associated with the manic highs, but the treatment is less effective at reducing the depression side of the disorder. With few other drugs to treat people with bipolar disorder, there is a gap that is waiting to be filled with more specific therapeutic targets.

The mechanism by which lithium salts aid bipolar sufferers was not well characterised, but research in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester has helped shed light onto a previously grey area. Dr. Qing-Jun Meng and his research team have found a link between bipolar disorder and a disruption of the circadian rhythms- the daily rhythms controlled by our body clock. Lithium salts work by inhibiting an enzyme that is involved in the disruption, leading to a three-fold increase in the stability of the rhythm.

Dr Meng’s research has opened a door towards the development of more targeted therapies that could give rise to drugs that are even more effective than lithium salts, with the advantage of reduced side effects. Promisingly, drugs to target the implicated enzyme are currently in development in other research laboratories.

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