Bipolar telomeres: MRI and age

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  • Published: Aug 1, 2017
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Bipolar telomeres: MRI and age

Show and "tel"

Patients with bipolar disorder treated with the standard drug for the condition, lithium, retain longer telomeres than untreated and asymptomatic family members. Evidence from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides parallel support for the findings.

The length of one's telomeres, the "protective" caps on our chromosomes offer an indication of a person's age because they shorten with each passing cell cycle. New research from King’s College London shows that patients with bipolar disorder treated with the standard drug for the condition, lithium, retain longer telomeres than untreated and asymptomatic family members. Evidence from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides parallel support for the findings.

Any disease or disorder with a genetic component might have implications for family members who do not present with symptoms but may share genetic traits with patients. Now, research suggests that people with a family history of bipolar disorder might "age" more rapidly than people without such a connection. Writing in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, the KCL team reports that those bipolar patients prescribed lithium have longer telomeres than those who are not undergoing lithium treatment. The team suggests that the drug somehow masks the well-known premature ageing effects associated with this disorder and may even reverse the biological effects at the chromosomal level.


The phenomenon might explain why people with bipolar disorder often present with aging diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and obesity earlier in life than the general population. Close relatives represent a group of individuals at risk of developing bipolar disorder but have not presented with symptoms and so are not undergoing treatment with medication. By looking at groups of patients and their close, first-degree, relatives, the KCL researchers hoped to see a clear reflection of the relationship between ageing and bipolar disorder.

In order to measure biological ageing, the researchers studied telomere length in 63 patients with bipolar disorder, 74 first-degree relatives and 80 unrelated healthy people. Shorter telomeres usually means a person's cells have gone through more cycles of replication as these protective caps degrade with each cycle until the cell line is no longer viable and their DNA is no longer protected in the same way within the chromosome. Telomeres get shorter as we age, but exogenous and endogenous factors other than the simple passage of time can cause telomere shortening at a higher or lower rate in some people. Indeed, the rate at which telomeres shorten through our lives varies depending on environmental and genetic factors.

Two unrelated people of the same chronological age may not look the same age biologically speaking, at least in terms of their telomere length. The researchers from and colleagues at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City, USA, reason, based on their genetic analysis of the three groups that bipolar disorder in a family affects telomere length detrimentally. The researchers also carried out MRI scans of the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in the regulation of mood in order to define any correlation between characteristics of this brain region and telomere length. They found that shorter telomeres were associated with the presence of a smaller hippocampus. It is possible then that a reduction in telomere length may be associated with a reduced ability of new cells to grow in the hippocampus, leading to a reduction in size and the potential for an increased risk of mood problems.

Behind the mask

KCL's Timothy Powell explains further: "Our study provides the first evidence that familial risk for bipolar disorder is associated with shorter telomeres, which may explain why bipolar disorder patients are also at a greater risk for ageing-related diseases." He adds that, "We still need to dissect the environmental and genetic contributions to shortened telomeres in those at high risk for bipolar disorder." There are many questions that remain unanswered. For instance, do those at risk of bipolar disorder have a genetic predisposition to premature biological ageing or is it that they encounter environmental factors that promote ageing, such as smoking tobacco and having a less healthy diet than other people?

Team member Sophia Frangou of Icahn suggests that the research might help healthcare workers point their patients to modifiable risk factors that reduce the risks of premature ageing. She points out that, "Proteins that protect against telomere shortening may provide novel treatment targets for people with bipolar disorder and those predisposed to it."

Related Links

Neuropsychopharmacol 2017, online: "Telomere length and bipolar disorder"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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