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Is bipolar disorder genetic?

Bipolar symptoms can start to show at any age — but do genetics play a part in developing the condition?

the-brain icon 07
September 19, 2022
4 min read

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that affects how you feel, think, and behave. Bipolar disorder is most common in young adulthood, with its onset often occurring between 18 and 25 years old — but is bipolar disorder genetic?

Article breakdown

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. When you have bipolar disorder — also called manic depression — between periods of normal moods, you can experience extreme episodes of mania (highs) and depression (lows).

What age does bipolar start?

There is no age at which bipolar symptoms will show. It can happen at any time, from childhood to old age. Though when it comes to children and adolescents, it's important to note that there are a few different ways bipolar symptoms can present. Some kids who have bipolar disorder may not show signs until they're older, while others' symptoms are more obvious from an early age. It all depends on the child and the severity of their illness — some children might have very mild lows (and therefore not be diagnosed), while others suffer from severe highs throughout their childhoods.

Is bipolar disorder genetic?

The exact cause of bipolar disorder isn't known, but research has shown that genetics can play a role in the development of this condition. It's not an inherited trait, but if your parent or sibling has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, there's an increased likelihood that you will be diagnosed as well.

That being said, it's not always clear whether the genes you inherit from your parents contribute to this risk factor — since many factors play into developing a mental health issue like bipolar disorder, including environmental factors (such as stress) and lifestyle choices (such as diet).

How is bipolar disorder passed genetically?

There is a genetic component to the disorder, but just like any other disease, it isn't caused by a single gene. By studying families with members who have been diagnosed with the condition, researchers have identified certain genes that may increase your risk of developing it. Research on the genetics of bipolar disorder has been going on for many years and there are several genes involved in this complex illness. The most recent research suggests that there may be hundreds of genes involved in developing bipolar disorder. But even if you carry one or more of these genes, it doesn't mean you automatically develop bipolar disorder yourself.

Are twins likely to both have bipolar disorder?

Twins are more likely to both have bipolar disorder than non-twins. This finding is often attributed to the fact that twins are exposed to the same genes, environment, and experiences as their sibling. Twins also tend to share similar symptoms and patterns of behaviour when compared with non-twins.

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Does bipolar skip a generation?

Bipolar disorder is not an inherited trait, so it can't 'skip' a generation. If both parents have bipolar disorder, there is only a 25% chance that their children will develop the condition — so it's possible for a parent to have bipolar disorder without passing it on to their children. The common genes that 'skip' a generation determine eye shape, hair texture, hair, eye, and skin colour.

Genetic research on bipolar disorder is ongoing, which means we don't yet have a definitive answer to the question, 'Is bipolar disorder genetic?'. Genetic research can be time consuming and complicated, as each individual has at least two sets of genes from each parent. Researchers need to study both sets for each person in the study before they can make any conclusions about whether bipolar disorder has a genetic cause or not.

Scientific research into genetics and bipolar disorder began around the year 2000, so it's likely we won't have definitive answers for some time yet.

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