New mental health project will explore the DNA of bipolar disorder

Published: February 7th 2019

Check out our brief “Genomics Can Help” videos of Dr. Alda and Dr. Uher:

Dr. Alda_Jan. 30, 2019

Dr. Uher_Jan 30, 2019

HALIFAX, NS – A team of Nova Scotia mental health researchers are set to explore the genetic factors that play a role in bipolar disorder (BD).  Led by Dr. Martin Alda and Dr. Rudolf Uher, the three-year, $975,000 research project could lead to new clinical tools to better diagnose and treat this disorder.

Dr. Martin Alda Credit: TrueFaux Films
Dr. Rudolf Uher Credit: TrueFaux Films

Early detection of bipolar disorder and optimized selection of long-term treatment will take a personalized medicine approach, using genomics to develop new screening tools for early detection and identify optimal long-term treatment for individual patients.  Ultimately, Drs. Alda and Uher hope to engage clinicians and patients in the personalized management of BD, based on new treatment guidelines informed by this work.

“Treating BD with long-term medication can be effective,” said Dr. Alda, chair in mood disorders at Dalhousie University and a clinical psychiatrist and researcher with the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA).  “However, no two individuals are alike and choosing which treatments work best for individuals can take months and even years of trial and error.  With the right genetic screening tools, we can more accurately predict which treatments are most likely to work for certain individuals, allowing us to prescribe the right treatment more quickly.”

Bipolar disorder (BD) is a serious, chronic psychiatric illness that affects young people in their early 20s and recurs throughout their lifetime. BD affects an estimated 500,000 Canadians and is one of the top 10 causes of disability and mortality worldwide. Genetic factors influence who is at risk from BD and how individuals respond to long-term treatment.

The risk of suicide in individuals with BD is highest in the first years of illness ­– precisely the time when most treatment delays occur.  A key component of the research will be to identify the key risk factors that predict who might get the disease.

“By identifying susceptible individuals, we can implement preventive strategies before the onset of symptoms,” said Dr. Uher, Canada Research Chair in early intervention in psychiatry at Dalhousie University and a clinical psychiatrist and researcher with the Nova Scotia Health Authority. “Timely diagnosis is critical for decreasing morbidity and mortality.”

Early detection of bipolar disorder and optimized selection of long-term treatment is supported by Genome Atlantic with funding from Genome Canada’s Regional Priorities Partnership Program (RP3), Research Nova Scotia Trust, Nova Scotia Health Authority, the Dalhousie University Department of Psychiatry and Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation.

Partner Quotes

The partnership that came together to support this project speaks to its critical importance. Genomics technologies hold great promise for a personalized medicine approach to diagnosing and treating mental illness, and the ground-breaking work done by Drs. Alda and Uher could significantly reduce the impact of bipolar disorder on the lives of patients and their families.”

  • Dr. Steve Armstrong, PhD; President and CEO, Genome Atlantic

“We know more today than we ever have about the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness – but there is still much to learn. Government is pleased to support research projects like this one that increase our collective understanding of mental illness while also improving outcomes for those living with bipolar disorder.”

  • Hon. Randy Delorey, Minister of Health and Wellness  

One in five Canadians are affected by mental illness and addiction each year, which includes those affected by bipolar disorder. Early detection and genetic screening could radically alter the effect this illness has on lives. The achievements of Drs. Alda and Uher in clinical work, in research, in leadership, and in mentorship, are exceptional and we are fortunate to have them working in our department and on this very critical project.”

  • Dr. Michael Teehan, head of the Department of Psychiatry, Dalhousie University, and Chief,

Department of Psychiatry, NSHA Central Zone

“Thanks to the generosity and vision of our donors, DMRF is able to support world-renowned researchers like Drs. Uher and Alda. Innovative medical research has the power to strengthen the ability to identify, diagnose, treat and ultimately prevent severe mental illness. Health is key to an improved quality of life. This, and the critical role our donors play as agents of change, underscores the necessity to continue supporting advances in health research.”

– Brian Thompson, CEO, Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation

“Innovative health research is a priority area for the Research Nova Scotia Trust, and we are proud to support this work. This research will drive solutions to mental health care for Nova Scotians.”

– Dr. Colin Dodds, PhD, Trustee of the Research Nova Scotia Trust

Media Contacts:

Charmaine Gaudet, Genome Atlantic, 902-421-5683; 902-488-7837; cgaudet@genomeatlantic.ca

Carla Adams, NSHA Media Relations, 1-844-483-3344; Carla.adams@nshealth.ca