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Changes in the pituitary, the "master control gland" of the body, may determine vulnerability and resilience to Bipolar Disorder

06 July 2010

Findings from the 'Vulnerability Indicators in Bipolar Disorder' study, lead by Dr. Frangou and her team, were recently published in the Journal of Affective Disorders provide new insights as to why some  people with genetic risk for Bipolar Disorder (BD) develop the disorder while others remain well.

People who suffer from BD experience quite dramatic mood changes which are very often triggered by life events, both good and bad. As life events are invariably stressful, even when they are positive, it would seem that BD is linked with difficulties in dealing with stress. In order to examine the link between stress and BD, the team focused on the pituitary gland, a peanut-shaped gland in the middle of the brain. The pituitary is often called the "master control gland" because it regulates the activity of most other glands in the body. This is particularly important for BD as this gland releases the hormones that are needed for the “flight or fight” response to stress.

The team measured the volume of the pituitary gland in patients with BD and their immediate relatives without the disorder.  The volume of the pituitary was only significantly larger in patients. Dr. Frangou said: “It seems likely that the larger size of the pituitary puts BD patients at a constant state of alert which over time may exhaust their resources leaving them vulnerable when facing stress. We do not know how this heightened vulnerability to stress comes about but it makes a lot of sense in terms of how the illness presents. More importantly perhaps, our findings also suggest that regulation of stress related hormones is preserved in those relatives that remain well. This points to new avenues for treatment and prevention relating to boosting stress defences in patients who already have the disorder or have a family history of BD.”

To access the paper in full, please follow the link: ‘Pituitary volume in patients with bipolar disorder and their first-degree relatives’ Takahashi, T.; Walterfang, M.; Wood, S.J.; Kempton, M.J.; Jogia, J.; Lorenzetti, V.; Soulsby, B.; Suzuki, M.; Velakoulis, D.; Pantelis, C.; Frangou, S.

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