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May 10th, 2011
12:32 PM ET

Will my baby inherit bipolar disorder?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Tuesdays, it's Dr. Charles Raison, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, and an expert in the mind-body connection for health.

Asked by Amy of Dallas, Texas

I am five months pregnant, and it has been great. My mother-in-law has bipolar disorder and is clinically depressed. I wonder if there will be a slight chance that my baby will get that from her? My husband has been emotionally taking care his mother since he was 10 and can't seem to help.

Expert answer

Dear Amy,

I am sorry to hear about your mother-in-law's troubles and by extension your troubles with her, not the least of which is your fear that her mental illness may be inherited by your unborn child.

As always when it comes to mental illness, there is good news and bad news.

The bad news is that these disorders are clearly hereditary, with bipolar disorder - which is also known as manic depression - being more heritable than what I sometimes call "regular old depression." So the presence of your mother-in-law in your unborn child's genetic legacy definitely increases risk.

The good news is that it probably doesn't increase the risk very much if most other people on both sides of the family are mentally healthy, or at least reasonably so.

The risk seems to be cumulative: The more people in a family who have a condition, the more likely it is that a new member will also suffer. The fact that your husband does not appear to have the same condition as his mother is also encouraging, because your child will inherit his or her genes directly from your husband, who himself received on average only half his genes from his mom.

The other piece of powerful good news is that bipolar disorder and other major psychiatric conditions are only partly genetic. If they were completely genetic, then if one identical twin had the condition, the other would always be doomed. But in fact, the risk to the other twin is somewhere just above 50%.

If a parent has bipolar disorder, his or her children have a 10% of developing bipolar disorder (more or less). This risk goes up considerably if both parents are affected. But even in this condition, children are about twice as likely to develop depression instead of bipolar disorder.

The fact that bipolar disorder has a strong genetic component also means you can help protect your unborn baby from the condition by providing her the best environment possible.

Make sure your nutrition during pregnancy is optimal. Do what it takes for you not to get depressed and to stay in an optimal state of mind. If you develop a postpartum depression, treat it quickly, because we know that when new moms get depressed, their babies suffer now and are much more likely to develop mental illness as they age.

As your child grows, try to maintain the most loving, supportive and non-conflictual environment you can. Any steps you can take in this depression will help provide your child from the same problems that beset his grandmother.

Follow Dr. Raison on Twitter


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