People at-risk for bipolar disorder may age faster, according to a study by Timothy R Powell, Danai Dima, Sophia Frangou, and Gerome Breen. The findings were published in Neuropsychopharmacology, a scientific journal.
Telomeres are DNA repeat structures (TTAGGG) at the end of chromosomes. When telomeres are critically shortened, cell death occurs, which makes these structures a biomarker for aging. Lifestyle changes, cellular stressors, and social adversity all contribute to telomere shortening.
Shorter telomere length is associated with cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, and age-related memory dysfunction. Telomere length is associated with the hippocampus, a sea-horse-shaped brain region which controls inhibition and emotion, and helps contribute to episodic memory.
Previous studies have shown reduced telomere length in schizophrenia, dementia, and major depressive disorder. But with regards to bipolar disorder, however, studies have demonstrated both reduced and increased telomere length in patients compared to healthy controls.
According to the Powell study, patients with bipolar disorder taking lithium have longer telomeres. The researchers used DNA sampling as well as magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) of close relatives to bipolar disorder sufferers to determine whether people with the illness age faster.
The scientists found that lithium has a protective effect on telomere length, whereas other medications, such as antidepressants, don’t. Also, the relatives of patients with bipolar disorder had significantly shorter telomeres than healthy volunteers.
This is the first study to demonstrate a link between shorter telomere length and relatives with bipolar disorder. Understanding telomere biology may lead to therapies to maintain telomere length or reverse the shortening process, which means slower aging. Studying the effect of lithium on telomeres may also contribute to further psychological medications which can help patients who suffer from bipolar disorder.