Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that affects roughly 1 in 100 people worldwide. It features periods of depression interspersed with episodes of mania – a state of delusion, heightened excitation and increased activity. Evidence suggests that changes in a brain region called the locus coeruleus contribute to bipolar disorder. Cells within this area produce a chemical called norepinephrine, whose levels increase during mania and decrease during depression. But it is unclear exactly how norepinephrine-producing cells, also known as noradrenergic cells, contribute to bipolar disorder.
The answer may lie in a protein called ErbB4, which is found within the outer membrane of many noradrenergic neurons. ErbB4 is active in both the developing and adult brain, and certain people with bipolar disorder have mutations in the gene that codes for the protein. Might changes in ErbB4 disrupt the activity of noradrenergic neurons? And could these changes increase the risk of bipolar disorder?
To find out, Cao, Zhang et al. deleted the gene for ErbB4 from noradrenergic neurons in the locus coeruleus of mice. The mutant mice showed mania-like behaviors: compared to normal animals, they were hyperactive, less anxious, and consumed more of a sugary solution. Treating the mice with lithium, a medication used in bipolar disorder, reversed these changes and made the rodents behave more like non-mutant animals. Further experiments revealed that noradrenergic neurons in the mutant mice showed increased spontaneous activity. These animals also had more of the chemicals noradrenaline and dopamine in the fluid circulating around their brains and spinal cords.
The results thus suggest that losing ErbB4 enhances the spontaneous firing of noradrenergic neurons in the locus coeruleus. This increases release of noradrenaline and dopamine, which in turn leads to mania-like behaviors. Future research should examine whether drugs that target ErbB4 could treat mania and improve the lives of people with bipolar disorder and related conditions.