Detecting Bipolar Disorder By Examining Brain Activity

The rampage shootings which took place in a shopping mall and in an elementary school over the recent Christmas holiday have once again shined attention on what can happen when mental illness goes untreated. While many are discussing how to keep weapons out of the hands of shooters, others are talking about how to prevent people from reaching the mental breaking point to begin with. Research in Australia gives hope that, at least in the case of bipolar disorder, it may be possible to recognize in advance, who is most at risk.

Bipolar disorder (BPD) is a mental illness characterized by extreme mood swings. Persons with the condition may live through shifts which range from deep depression to frenetic, uninhibited behavior. The shifts from low energy to high energy and from listlessness to hyper-emotion can make life challenging for the person living with the disorder as well as for everyone around him/her.

The National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) reports that bipolar disorder affects 2.6 percent of the U.S. adult population. The disease usually develops sometime in a person’s mid-twenties and more than 80 percent of the time, cases are considered severe. Still, less than half of those affected are treated and, again according to NIMH, just 19 percent are receiving what could be termed as minimal care and treatment.

Although the disease is considered strongly heritable, just what triggers it remains unclear. So far, clinicians have needed to wait for the presence of symptoms in order to identify who may be vulnerable to BPD. Australian researchers now believe that it may be possible to identify this mood disorder even before outward symptoms are present by looking for clues in brain activity.

The Australian study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain activity in 47 teens and young adults who had a family history of BPD. Those scans were then compared to scans taken of 49 control subjects (those with no history of bipolar disorder). The fMRI scans were taken as each participant viewed images of human faces with varying expressions – neutral, happy, fearful.

Those who had a family history of BPD show lower responsiveness to images of human emotions compared to participants with no family history. The responsiveness was especially low when viewing pictures of fearful human faces. The researchers believe that their findings indicate a dysfunction in the brain’s frontal lobe, an area known to govern human emotion.

If medical scientists are indeed able to identify BPD before clinical symptoms appear, then it is possible not only to apply appropriate interventions to manage the disease, but it is hoped that, at least for some, the illness could be prevented entirely.

There is still hope.

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