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Brain Imaging Sheds New Light on Bipolar Disorder in Children

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that can profoundly affect a person’s life at any age. According to the National Institutes of Health, the disorder affects around 5.7 million American adults, or 2.6 percent of our adult population. Globally, up to 4 percent of adults are affected. The illness is typically identified around age 25, but symptoms are often apparent before then. Around 1 percent of 14 to 18-year-olds have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, though the actual numbers may be higher.

Children with Bipolar

There are 3.4 million children and adolescents living with depression, and experts suggest that perhaps one-third of that number may actually be bipolar. In fact, nearly half of adults with bipolar disorder (above 40 percent) say that they started feeling symptoms of the illness during their childhood. But does the illness manifest the same way in children as it does in adults? That is a question addressed by a recent study review conducted by researchers at Bradley Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.

Looking at a Large Amount of Data

Scientists and others have turned to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to investigate how bipolar disorder operates within the brain, but investigations into potential differences between childhood versus adult bipolar have been more rare. The Bradley study represents a meta-analysis examination of fMRI results for children with bipolar disorder, adults with the illness and bipolar subjects.

Adult-Childhood Brain Differences

Sifting through vast amounts of previous research, the investigators did find differences between age groups. For starters, the comparison revealed that the brains of children with the illness had greater activity in the amygdala than the brains of adults with the disorder.

The amygdala is a small grouping of nuclei close to the hippocampus. Among its key tasks are emotional learning and long-range memory. Emotions of fear and aggression are centered in the amygdala. This area of the brain is also involved in creating emotional associations with environmental stimuli.

Researchers next examined findings from studies that tested reactions to emotional stimuli. Here, too, the investigators found that the children’s brains were more highly active. In this case, the precuneus and inferior frontal gyrus regions were the ones to light up. These areas have to do with response inhibition and sorting through clues to determine which are of primary importance.
On the other hand, when researchers looked at purely cognitive tasks, they found notable deficits in the children’s anterior cingulate cortex.

Different Responses Deserve Different Therapies

The Bradley findings may prove particularly useful in understanding how to target treatments for children with the disorder. Knowing which areas of the brain are being stimulated or activated could lead to the development of brain-targeted treatments. Brain games played on a computer might strengthen weak areas while group and individual therapies could be designed to address areas of activation. None of these treatments are yet proven, but they are the subject of ongoing research.

There is still hope.

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