THOUSANDS of manic depressives could be offered hope in a pioneering three-year study into finding out whether the severe form of the condition is genetic.
Scientists from three different UK universities, including Aberdeen, Liverpool and the Institute of Psychiatry, at King's College London, have joined forces and been awarded £1.1 million by the Medical Research Council to pursue the study.
They believe the answers could lie with short DNA sequences which act as 'genetic switches' controlling key genes in an area of the brain that influences mood.
And it is hoped the study will lead to pioneering drugs being developed to tackle it - as current anti-depressants on the market don't always benefit severe forms of the illness, scientists say.
The end results could help the likes of actor celebrities such as Stephen Fry, who suffers from the illness, and has led high profile BBC TV programmes designed to break the taboo on mental health illnesses in general.
He came out about his manic depression in 2006 and did a BBC series The Secret Life Of A Manic Depressive.
Talking in the Guardian newspaper two years ago, Fry said: "I'd never heard the word before, but for the first time, at the age of 37, I had a diagnosis that explains the massive highs and miserable lows I've lived with all my life. There's no doubt that I do have extremes of mood that are greater than just about anybody else I know. "
Fry added: "My mind was full of questions. Am I now mad? How have I got this illness, could it have been prevented, can I be cured of it? Since then, I have discovered just how serious it is to have bipolarity, or manic depression as it's also called."
Four million others in the UK have it, and many of them end up killing themselves, he claimed.
Writing on the Kings College website, Dr Alasdair MacKenzie, Senior Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen leading the study, said: 'Only by comparing the genomes of species as diverse as mice, marsupials and birds has it been possible to identify these switches as, in many cases, they are located far away from the genes they control. The distances involved are as surprising as having a light bulb in London with the switch for controlling it in Liverpool.'
The 'so called' switches ensure that certain genes are only used in the correct parts of the brain at the proper times and in the right dose.
Any changes in these can cause imbalances in the amount of critical proteins in the brain that may increase susceptibility to depression. Unlike genes, little is known of these switches, technically known as enhancers, because up until now they have been very hard to find.
The scientists involved from Kings College, include, leader, the Institute of Psychiatry's Dr Gerome Breen, Research Fellow in the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Interdisciplinary Research Group, and Professor Peter McGuffin, Dean of the Institute of Psychiatry and Professor of Psychiatric Genetics.
Professor McGuffin adds: "We are delighted to be part of such a potentially exciting project and look forward to our collaboration further enlightening clinical research and practice."
Aberdeen's Dr Alasdair MacKenzie added: 'This study would have been impossible even four years ago. It is only through advances in the sequencing of the DNA of many different species that we can now use powerful computers to pick out the most important bits of the human genome that includes the switches needed to control genes.
"In addition to depression, this technology has the potential for exploring the causes of a number of other disorders including chronic pain, obesity or even cancer," he said.