Prechter Program collaborator, Dr. Emma Stapp of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University recently authored a paper "Family environment and polygenic risk in the bipolar high-risk context". The purpose of this research was to examine how family environment, as viewed by young people, interacted with genetic risk to affect the development of bipolar disorder and related mental illnesses.
The research team studied young people aged 12 to 22 years, in both the US and Australia, who were either considered to be at high risk for developing bipolar disorder because of their parent’s bipolar diagnosis, or considered to be low risk if parents had no family history of mental illness. Genetic risk was measured from the blood of each individual by quantifying their personal burden of disease-associated genetic variants, into a polygenic risk index.
As anticipated, young people with warm, flexible, low conflict family environments had low overall risk for bipolar disorder, and this risk increased in individuals with a higher polygenic index (or burden of bipolar risk variants). Surprisingly, where offspring perceived family environments were high in conflict and low in cohesion and flexibility, it was people with a lower burden of bipolar risk variants that had higher risk of mental illness. Additionally, offspring who themselves developed bipolar disorder reported more suicide ideation in the presence of conflicted family environments—but not with low-conflict/cohesive family environments. These results highlight the importance of reducing communication conflict and improving family cohesion and adaptability to support adolescents’ resilience.
Implications for gene-environment research and clinical care are discussed in the open access article. Read more here.