Is Bipolar Disorder Genetic?

My husband takes lithium for bipolar disorder. We would like to have a baby. Is there any information about possible effects on the baby if the father is taking this medication?

As far as I’ve been able to locate in my research, there is no report of any direct effects on sperm or on conception if a father is taking lithium when a woman gets pregnant. So as best we can tell, just because your husband is using this medication, it should not have a direct effect on your pregnancy.

The other important question to consider, though, is the genetic aspects of bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness). Studies of twins and studies of adoptees have shown over and over that children who have a relative with bipolar disorder have a much higher chance of developing the same disorder themselves, regardless of how they are raised. In fact, first-degree biological relatives of individuals with bipolar disorder have not only elevated rates of pure bipolar disorder (4 to 24 percent), but also of major depressive disorder (4 to 24 percent).

This is because bipolar disorder has a neurobiological basis, and some of it has a strong genetic component. But not everything about bipolar illness is “bad.” Although it is devastating in its severe forms, and when not treated properly, bipolar disorder has also been linked to creativity and high accomplishments in some individuals (Winston Churchill, Ted Turner, Abraham Lincoln, and Lord Byron have all been considered to have bipolar disorder). The researcher Kay Jamison has a beautiful book, called “An Unquiet Mind,” about her experiences with the disorder.

Any baby that you and your husband have together is at risk for carrying the genetic vulnerability for bipolar disorder. For this reason, you will want to make your pregnancy as healthy as possible, so that there are no other difficulties or “insults” to the developing brain of the fetus and so that the baby starts out with the best possible physical and brain health.

Most researchers and clinicians would agree that, if a child or teenager carries a genetic liability for bipolar disorder, he or she can be greatly helped by the following: a stable, consistent, warm, and nurturing home environment; a healthy lifestyle, with plenty of exercise and good nutrition (omega-3 essential fatty acids actually can help some people with their mood swings); and complete avoidance of all alcohol and other drugs of abuse, which can make the expression of the bipolar disorder worse, even as the person tries to “self-medicate” with substances.

The information provided on Health Search Online is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.