A Canadian doctor has launched the world’s first study exploring whether bipolar disorder, which has long been treated with a variety of powerful medications, could be treated by changing a patient’s gut bacteria.
The approach may seem unusual, but psychiatrist Dr. Valerie Taylor says it’s a study she had to launch after watching two intriguing cases in patients with severe bipolar disorder whose conditions improved while taking antibiotics.
“It was sort of an ‘Aha!’ moment,” Taylor told CTV News. “Literally people's lives changed, and then the antibiotics stopped, and their symptoms returned.”
That prompted Dr. Taylor, who is chief of psychiatry at Women’s College Hospital, to immerse herself in the emerging science of the microbiome – the world of bacteria yeast and fungi that live in our digestive system.
These organisms are vital in processing our food and eliminating toxins, but also in regulating the immune system and inflammation in our body. Fixing dysregulated microbiomes has become a new field of investigation, and the primary approach is fecal transplants.
Fecal transplants involve stool samples from healthy donors that are implanted into the colon of those with diseases. They are now routinely used to treat Clostridium difficile, or C. difficile, a potentially lethal gut infection with a success rate of about 90 per cent. FMT is also being studied to treat inflammatory bowel disorders, diabetes, obesity and autism.
Doctors warn against self-treatment, because it’s impossible to know what infections could be passed on from unscreened fecal matter.
But Taylor’s study is the first to consider a link between bipolar disorder and the gut.
Her study will analyze 60 patients with bipolar disorder from across the world. Patients will have their gut bacteria flushed out, a process similar to preparation for a colonoscopy.
Patients will then receive fecal transplants from a healthy donor who has been screened for mental health. Some of the patients will receive a placebo of their own stool samples.
Researchers will then monitor the group for two years to study how they respond.
Among those 60 patients is Diane Ellis, who has treated her symptoms for 19 years with medications. Some days, severe depression keeps her from leaving bed, and episodes of mania have caused her to black out.
Ellis hopes the gut bacteria treatment is more effective than drugs.
“I would be happier if my body could look after itself, and I didn't need to take the drugs,” Ellis said.
Taylor’s approach is unique, but it isn’t entirely unheard of. An Australian woman who has been treating herself with stool transplants for six months said her depression has disappeared.
Jane Sullivan, 36, said medications didn’t quell her symptoms, so she began receiving stool transplants from her husband.
She says the approach worked, and has blogged about the experience.
“Within nine months, under the guidance of my psychiatrist I was successfully able to cease all regular medication, and more importantly, remain well,” she said.
Taylor admits that her research is “very out of the box,” but is heartened by the response.
“I've been pleasantly been surprised at the interest,” she said.
Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that causes a patient to experience intense emotional highs and lows. During spells of mania, some patients struggle to sleep, experience feelings of invincibility and may engage in risky behavior. Prolonged episodes of depression are also common.
Singer Mariah Carey recently acknowledged her own struggle with bipolar disorder. More than 2 per cent of the population will experience bipolar disorder during their lives, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
At the moment, the most common treatments for bipolar disorder are antidepressant medications, counselling and, in some cases, electroconvulsive therapy, also known as ECT.
Health Canada says bipolar disorder is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, including hormone imbalances, stress, illness and social environment.
Unlike other mental illnesses, bipolar disorder affects men and women in similar numbers, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Having a family member with the condition also increases a person’s likelihood of experiencing bipolar disorder.
With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip