With Matching $5 Million Gift, a Spouse Seeks Hope for Bipolar Disorder Patients

May 11, 2017 7:00 AM

After the death of her husband, one woman has dedicated her life to finding better treatments for bipolar disorder. Now, her family is committing up to $5 million to advance research efforts at U-M.

Graphic of Brain

The turmoil of bipolar disorder is often devastating to careers and personal relationships, affecting not only a patient but also his or her family and community.

The Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Program at Michigan Medicine helps to offer hope and insight to those suffering from the lifelong condition.

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This month, the spouse of the program’s namesake announced a campaign to boost the impact: Her family will match every dollar given toward bipolar research at the University of Michigan up to $5 million.

“My family is committed to increasing scientific understanding and treatment options that will enable people with bipolar disorder to lead healthy and productive lives,” says Waltraud “Wally” Prechter, who founded the U-M program in 2001 after the suicide of her husband, Heinz.

A successful entrepreneur and auto industry pioneer, Heinz Prechter brought the sunroof concept to American cars. But even as his products brought light into countless vehicles, he fought darkness in his own life.

That has since compelled Wally Prechter to help advance scientific understanding of bipolar disorder and become an advocate for others through the Prechter research program.

“The ultimate goal is to achieve personalized treatments for the patient and to become the No. 1 place in the nation regarding all research for bipolar disorder,” she says. “A place of hope and a place where research turns into results.”

Prechter spoke more about bipolar disorder, the program’s ongoing research and what the new fundraising effort aims to achieve.

What is bipolar disorder and what causes it?

Prechter: Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder characterized by intense high and low moods, called mania and depression. It is a very complex illness that is often difficult to diagnose.

The illness typically emerges around 18 to 21 years of age, and a great majority of patients go years without proper diagnosis or treatment.

Although the direct cause of bipolar disorder is unclear, we know that genetic, biochemical and environmental factors play a role. Bipolar disorder runs in families, tends to recur throughout one’s life span and is affected by genes and life experiences.

How does bipolar disorder manifest in a person’s life?

Prechter: A patient battles the ups and downs of the illness, as well as the numerous side effects of medications intended to stabilize moods: weight gain, dental problems, concentration issues, feeling “different” and many more.

SEE ALSO: How Diet Influences Mood and Mental Health

Often, the family tries to assist with helping to create a regulated lifestyle based on healthy nutrition, care and proper sleep. It is the family that contributes to the recovery and resilience of the patient.

Still, over a third of bipolar individuals have one or more serious suicide attempts and over 15 percent die by suicide. Fortunately, the suicide rate goes down dramatically with adequate treatment.  

Why are mental illness and suicide so plagued by stigma? How can this change?

Prechter: Stigma prevails because of fear of an illness that is physical in nature but invisible. Society has separated mental illness from other diseases, but there is no difference. That false separation makes it doubly difficult to live with a mental illness.

In my own opinion, state-of-the-art research needs to happen with good, applicable and effective results for the bipolar patient in order for stigma to vanish.

Man in lab
Sue O'Shea, Ph.D., the Crosby-Kahn Collegiate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at U-M, conducts research about bipolar disorder in adults.

What is the goal of your new gift to the research effort?

Prechter: Our gift to the University of Michigan will grow the endowment that provides for the continuation of the Prechter Longitudinal Study of Bipolar Disorder, which has been ongoing for 11 years.

The study allows researchers to track symptoms, response to treatment and overall health over time like never before. Our participants are the real heroes. Already, more than 1,200 dedicated individuals have partnered with the research team to track personal and medical information for this long-term study.

What else has been accomplished by the Prechter program?

Prechter: The Prechter researchers were the ones to develop the world’s first bipolar-specific stem cell lines, which enabled them to discover new genetic links and explore environmental factors.

Volunteers can also donate samples of their blood, giving scientists the chance to study tiny differences in DNA that may play a role in how the disorder develops, why it runs in families, how it affects people over time and what makes people vary in their response to treatment.

The “bank” of DNA from hundreds of research participants over the last decade is called the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Genetics Repository, and it is the nation’s largest privately funded bipolar genetics repository.

How can others get involved with this research?

Prechter: One way to get involved is to become a participant. Information about participating in the program is available by visiting the program’s website, by calling 1-877-UM GENES (1-877-864-3637) or by emailing bpresearch@umich.edu.

Another way is to donate toward the research efforts. Funding allows us to accelerate our pace of discovery. During the month of May, the Prechter program is leading a crowdfunding campaign that people can join. They can start their own fundraising page and engage their family and friends, or they can make an outright donation. Every dollar counts and makes a difference.