Using extracellular vesicles to study bipolar disorder

August 7, 2019

Written by: Dr. Gabriel R. Fries, PhD

In the search for ways to better understand bipolar disorder and develop better treatment for patients, researchers around the world are focusing on the investigation of so-called “biomarkers”. These biological markers can be measured in living patients and be informative of the disease and its processes.

However, years of research led to the discovery of several blood-based biomarkers with very limited clinical use. Their lack of clinical relevance might be related to the fact that most of these blood measurements do not reflect what is actually happening in the brain. Since the assessment of brain biomarkers in living subjects is still quite limited, and brain biopsies are obviously not a possibility, researchers from the Translational Psychiatry Program at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) will study brain-derived extracellular vesicles that are released in the bloodstream and can be assessed in living patients with bipolar disorder.

These vesicles are thought to contain brain-specific information and may thus act as a “peripheral window for the brain” [1]. Specifically, they are known to carry great amounts of non-coding RNAs, including microRNAs, which are thought to play important roles in the pathophysiology of bipolar disorder [2,3] and other neuropsychiatric disorders.

This innovative study has been recently funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health (1R21MH117636-01A1), with Dr. Joao De Quevedo as Principal Investigator. Co-Investigators also include Dr. Jair Soares, Dr. Gabriel Fries, Dr. Irungu M. Benson, and Dr. Wei Zhang from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Dr. Amit Srivastava from the Department of Pediatric Surgery, and Dr. Zhongming Zhao from the School of Biomedical Informatics.

More information on the funded study can be found here.


[1] Fries GR, Quevedo J. Exosomal MicroRNAs as Potential Biomarkers in Neuropsychiatric Disorders. Methods Mol Biol. 2018;1733:79-85.

[2] Fries GR, Carvalho AF, Quevedo J. The miRNome of bipolar disorder. J Affect Disord. 2018 Jun;233:110-116.

[3] Fries GR, Lima CNC, Valvassori SS, Zunta-Soares G, Soares JC, Quevedo J. Preliminary investigation of peripheral extracellular vesicles’ microRNAs in bipolar disorder. J Affect Disord. 2019 Aug 1;255:10-14.

Gabriel R. Fries, PhD, is an Instructor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UTHealth and a translational researcher in the field of biological psychiatry. His research focuses on the epigenetic basis of mood disorders, with a particular interest in bipolar disorder and molecular mechanisms of stress. Dr. Fries’ studies use basic science and investigation of cells, (epi)genomes and clinical datasets to better understand disease mechanisms and transmission, with the ultimate goal of designing novel medications and improving the lives of patients.