Objectives: We studied cognitive function in high-risk relatives belonging to a single extended family showing linkage of bipolar disorder to a locus on chromosome 4. High-risk relatives were defined as those that carried the risk haplotype of polymorphic markers, identified in a previous linkage study. This family provided a rare opportunity to characterize a neuropsychological endophenotype in a homogeneous sample of relatives with a common genetic risk factor.
Methods: Fifteen family members carrying the risk haplotype (eight diagnosed with bipolar disorder or depression and seven with no psychiatric diagnosis), unrelated patients with bipolar disorder (n = 36) and major depressive disorder (n = 40), and healthy control subjects (n = 33) were administered the California Verbal Learning Test, Verbal Fluency Test, Hayling Sentence Completion Test, and Brixton Spatial Anticipation Test to assess verbal memory, verbal fluency, and executive function.
Results: Compared with healthy controls, family members carrying the risk haplotype were impaired in indices of memory and executive function. There were no significant differences between unaffected and affected haplotype-carrying family members in any cognitive measure. Pronounced deficits in the encoding stage of verbal memory and category verbal fluency were evident in individuals with the risk haplotype.
Conclusions: Verbal learning and semantic verbal fluency impairments may represent a cognitive endophenotype for both bipolar disorder and major depression in relatives of bipolar disorder patients, as impairment was also present in high-risk relatives who had not developed any affective disorder symptoms. These findings suggest that impairment in semantic organization may be linked to the genetic aetiology of bipolar disorder.