Geelong trial offers hope for bipolar patients

Improving Health and Wellbeing

A world-first clinical trial has taken a new approach to treating bipolar.

Coinciding with the recent World Bipolar Day (March 30), it is timely to note that Deakin University is continuing to break new ground in understanding bipolar disorder.

A world-first clinical trial of a new treatment may offer hope for thousands of people around the world, with the final outcomes to be released in the next few months.

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes extreme changes in mood, from periods of elation to severe depression, affecting sleep, energy, thinking and behaviour. It is estimated to effect as many as 240,000 Australians during their lifetime.

The recently-completed 20-week trial was conducted by Deakin University’s IMPACT Strategic Research Centre, in partnership with Barwon Health.

Led by one of the world’s leading psychiatric researchers, IMPACT Director Professor Michael Berk, the scientists tested the potential benefits of a drug known as N-acetyl cysteine (or NAC), combined with energy-boosting supplements.

“We have taken a new approach to the condition, treating it as a disorder of energy, rather than as solely caused by problems with neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, in the brain,” Professor Berk said.

He explained that there are established treatments for the high-energy manic phase, but very few for the low-energy depressive phase, despite the fact that most people with the disorder spend three times longer depressed than manic, perhaps for several months at a time.

“This treatment targets the mitochondria, the parts of cells within the body – in this case, the brain – that convert energy in food into energy that our cells can use. It is an entirely new therapy that, if proved effective, will be safe and readily available,” he said.

“Our research could change the field – proving that mitochondria are at the heart of bipolar disorder. It could be a breakthrough in the field of psychiatry that we hope will make a difference to people’s lives.”
Professor Michael Berk Director, Innovation in Mental, Physical and Clinical Treatment

In the trial, researchers compared the responses of three groups of participants, those on a placebo, those provided with NAC alone, which acts as an anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative agent within the brain, and those provided with an energy-boosting cocktail of dietary supplements, vitamins and minerals (known to boost mitochondrial function), as well as NAC.

Discovered in the 1950s, NAC is proving to be a useful drug for certain mental illnesses. Over the past few years, Professor Berk and his IMPACT colleagues have attracted global interest for their discovery of its potential to treat schizophrenia and clinical depression.

Indeed, they have already established NAC on its own to be useful for bipolar disorder, but this new combination may be added to the list.

“Another important benefit of this drug is that it is already in use for other conditions, such as neurological disorders and paracetamol overdoses, so it can easily be adapted to new uses,” noted Professor Berk.

“Our data will reveal its effectiveness, and that of the energy boosting combination for bipolar disorder.”

IMPACT is also conducting an observational study for bipolar disorder. Volunteers with the disorder are currently being sought for a new “Geelong Bipolar Disorder and Lifestyle Study” that aims to further improve the lives of people with this condition.

Participants will be asked about their health, lifestyle and mental well-being, and clinical measures will be taken. Participants must be diagnosed with the disorder, aged over 20 and usually reside in Geelong or surrounding areas.

For information about the new study, please contact researcher Ms Amanda Stuart on (03) 4215 3308 or email bipolar@barwonhealth.org.au.

Centre for Innovation in Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Treatment

The Centre for Innovation in Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Treatment (IMPACT) is a multi-disciplinary Strategic Research Centre that integrates clinical, epidemiological and basic research with a strong translational focus. We contribute to the understanding of the aetiology and impact of psychiatric, musculoskeletal, metabolic and other health disorders.