Scientists are learning about the possible bipolar causes through several kinds of studies -- in particular, studies on twins. Most scientists now agree that there are several bipolar causes and that many factors act together, such personality and environmental factors, to serve as bipolar causes and produce the illness.
Because bipolar disorder tends to run in families, researchers have been searching for specific genes that may increase a person's chance of developing the disorder. Genes are the microscopic "building blocks" of DNA inside all cells that influence how the body and mind work and grow. But genes are not the whole story as to the cause of bipolar disorders. Studies of identical twins (who share all the same genes) indicate that both genes and other factors play a role as bipolar causes. If bipolar disorder were caused entirely by genes, then the identical twin of someone with the illness would always develop the illness, and research has shown that this is not the case. But if one twin has bipolar disorder, the other twin is more likely to develop the illness than is another sibling.
Findings from gene research suggest that bipolar disorder, like other mental illnesses, does not occur because of a single gene. It appears likely that many different genes act together, and in combination with other factors of someone's personality or environment, to cause bipolar disorder. Finding these genes, each of which contributes only a small amount toward a person's vulnerability to bipolar disorder, has been extremely difficult. But scientists expect that the advanced research tools now being used will lead to these discoveries and to new and better treatments for bipolar disorder.
Brain-imaging studies are helping scientists learn what goes wrong in the brain to produce bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. New brain-imaging techniques allow researchers to take pictures of the living brain at work (to examine its structure and activity) without the need for surgery or other invasive procedures. These techniques include:
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Positron emission tomography (PET)
- Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
There is evidence from imaging studies that the brains of people with bipolar disorder may differ from the brains of healthy individuals. As the differences are more clearly identified and defined through research, scientists will gain a better understanding of the underlying bipolar causes, and eventually may be able to predict which types of treatment will work most effectively.