Insulin resistance takes center stage: a new paradigm in the progression of bipolar disorder

Ann Med. 2019 Aug-Sep;51(5-6):281-293. doi: 10.1080/07853890.2019.1659511. Epub 2019 Aug 27.


Bipolar Disorder (BD) is a major psychiatric illness affecting up to 5% of the population. BD can progress over time to a chronic "neuroprogressive" course with cognitive and functional impairment. Currently, there are no validated predictors indicating which patients will develop a neuroprogressive course and there are no specific treatments. This review presents data supporting a novel hypothesis on the mechanisms underlying bipolar neuroprogression. Insulin resistance (IR) is present in 52% of BD patients and is associated with chronic course, treatment nonresponse, adverse brain changes and cognitive impairment. Further, bipolar morbidity increases 12-fold following the onset of IR indicating that IR may modify disease progression. I review evidence that IR is a testable and treatable modifying factor in neuroprogression and that reversing IR may be an efficient (and perhaps the only) means of obtaining remission in some patients. I draw a parallel with Helicobacter pylori in peptic ulcer disease (a novel mechanism that brought together two previously unrelated phenomena that uncovered a new treatment approach). This model of bipolar progression combines shared dysregulated mechanisms between IR and BD, allowing for early screening, case finding, and monitoring for neuroprogression, with the potential for intervention that could prevent advanced bipolar illness. KEY MESSAGES Neuroprogression in bipolar disorder is defined by a more severe form of illness and poor outcome. Currently, there are no validated predictors of neuroprogression, which could help inform treatment and improve prognosis. Insulin resistance is present in more than half of all bipolar patients and is associated with a chronic course of illness, lack of response to mood stabilizing treatment, cognitive impairment and poor functional outcomes. Insulin resistance may modify the course of bipolar disorder and promote neuroprogression. Insulin resistance may be a testable and potentially modifiable risk factor for neuroprogression in bipolar disorder.

Keywords: Bipolar disorder; insulin resistance; neuroprogression; type 2 diabetes mellitus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bipolar Disorder / classification
  • Bipolar Disorder / complications
  • Bipolar Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / etiology
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / physiopathology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / epidemiology
  • Disease Progression
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Insulin Resistance / physiology*
  • Male
  • Risk Factors

Grants and funding

The author would like to thank the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (NARSAD), Dalhousie University Department of Psychiatry Research Fund and the Stanley Medical Research Institute for awards supporting her research.