Brain Imaging May Help Determine Risk For Bipolar Disorder

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

Scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the Black Dog Institute in Sydney, Australia, have discovered that brain imaging could help determine the risk of developing bipolar disorder in adolescents.

In particular, the study showed that younger people who are at risk for developing bipolar disorder react less often to facial emotions. The researchers found that the imaging showed clear and measurable differences in brain activities for adolescents who were at risk for developing the disorder.

“We found that the young people who had a parent or sibling with bipolar disorder had reduced brain responses to emotive faces, particularly a fearful face. This is an extremely promising breakthrough,” explained the study´s leader Philip Mitchell, a professor at UNSW, in a prepared statement.

The team of investigators utilized functional MRI to provide images of brain activity. In the experiment, the participants were asked to respond to pictures of human faces that were calm, fearful, or happy. The findings of the MRI demonstrated that those with higher genetic risk to develop bipolar disorder had less activity in the part of the brain that managed emotional responses.

“We know that bipolar is primarily a biological illness with a strong genetic influence but triggers are yet to be understood. Being able to identify young people at risk will enable implementation of early intervention programs, giving them the best chance for a long and happy life,” continued Mitchell in the statement.

The findings of the study were recently published in Biological Psychiatry and the researchers explained the implications the results could have in the scientific community.

“Our results show that bipolar disorder may be linked to a dysfunction in emotional regulation and this is something we will continue to explore,” noted Mitchell in the statement. “And we now have an extremely promising method of identifying children and young people at risk of bipolar disorder.”

The study comes at a particularly crucial time as more and more researchers study the impact of bipolar disorder in individuals around the world. In Australia, specifically, the disorder affects approximately one in every 75 individuals. Those who suffer from bipolar disorder demonstrate extreme and unpredictable changes in mood. These mood swings are also related to aggression, significant depression, as well as changes in careers, relationships, and everyday life. Even more shocking, bipolar disorder has the highest rate of suicide among all the psychiatric disorders.

“We expect that early identification will significantly improve outcomes for people that go on to develop bipolar disorder, and possibly even prevent onset in some people,” concluded Mitchell in the statement.

Furthermore, for those who are familiar with individuals with bipolar disorder, the Mayo Clinic provides a few tips in terms of keeping minor episodes from becoming more significant episodes of depression or mania. One recommendation is to stay focused on any warning signs for depression or mania. As well, it´s important for those with bipolar disorder to avoid using alcohol and drugs as these substances pose a greater risk for the symptoms to start up again. Lastly, individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder should remember to take medications as directed as drugs could have difficult side effects or leads to consequences like feelings of suicide or depressive symptoms.

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