A gene co-expression module implicating the mitochondrial electron transport chain is associated with long-term response to lithium treatment in bipolar affective disorder

Transl Psychiatry. 2018 Sep 5;8(1):183. doi: 10.1038/s41398-018-0237-0.


Lithium is the first-line treatment for bipolar affective disorder (BPAD) but two-thirds of patients respond only partially or not at all. The reasons for this high variability in lithium response are not well understood. Transcriptome-wide profiling, which tests the interface between genes and the environment, represents a viable means of exploring the molecular mechanisms underlying lithium response variability. Thus, in the present study we performed co-expression network analyses of whole-blood-derived RNA-seq data from n = 50 lithium-treated BPAD patients. Lithium response was assessed using the well-validated ALDA scale, which we used to define both a continuous and a dichotomous measure. We identified a nominally significant correlation between a co-expression module comprising 46 genes and lithium response represented as a continuous (i.e., scale ranging 0-10) phenotype (cor = -0.299, p = 0.035). Forty-three of these 46 genes had reduced mRNA expression levels in better lithium responders relative to poorer responders, and the central regulators of this module were all mitochondrially-encoded (MT-ND1, MT-ATP6, MT-CYB). Accordingly, enrichment analyses indicated that genes involved in mitochondrial functioning were heavily over-represented in this module, specifically highlighting the electron transport chain (ETC) and oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) as affected processes. Disrupted ETC and OXPHOS activity have previously been implicated in the pathophysiology of BPAD. Our data adds to previous evidence suggesting that a normalisation of these processes could be central to lithium's mode of action, and could underlie a favourable therapeutic response.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Antimanic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Bipolar Disorder / drug therapy
  • Bipolar Disorder / genetics*
  • Electron Transport*
  • Female
  • Gene Expression
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Gene Regulatory Networks*
  • Humans
  • Lithium / therapeutic use*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mitochondria / genetics*
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Phenotype
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Young Adult


  • Antimanic Agents
  • Lithium