Patterns of brain activity in response of emotional faces may help diagnose bipolar disorder

June 19, 2012
Patterns of brain activity in response of emotional faces may help diagnose bipolar disorder
A photograph of a woman laughing. Credit: Anthea Sieveking, Wellcome Images.

(Medical Xpress) -- Software programmed to recognise patterns of activity in the brain could help doctors diagnose mental illnesses more accurately in the future, according to research funded by the Wellcome Trust. In a study published in the journal ‘Bipolar Disorders’, researchers at UCL (University College London) showed that patterns of brain responses to happy faces and to neutral faces are different in people with bipolar disorder or unipolar disorder (major depressive disorder) and healthy individuals.

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, refers to severe episodes of mood disturbance ranging from depression to elation. The disorder can seriously affect a person's ability to function normally. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, approximately one in every 100 adults will experience at some point in their life.

There are currently no known biological markers for the disorder, making it difficult to diagnose accurately. Almost two-thirds of people with the disorder are misdiagnosed as having unipolar disorder, leading to inadequate treatment, potentially worsening symptoms and increasing suicide risk.

Recent neuroimaging studies have shown differences in activity in the brains of people with bipolar disorder, particularly when they are responding to emotional stimuli, such as happy faces. Other studies have used pattern-recognition software to distinguish between healthy and people with a specific disorder; however, these studies have largely been based on static magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of brain structure and focused on a single patient population.

Now, Dr Janaina Mourao-Miranda, a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellow at UCL, has used functional MRI to study patterns of activity in the brains of individuals. This technique shows how changes over time while an individual takes part in a test.

In the study, Dr Mourao-Miranda and colleagues studied the brain activity in 18 individuals with bipolar disorder and 18 with unipolar disorder, all currently undergoing an episode of depression, and 18 healthy 'control' subjects.

The individuals all took part in a test in which they were asked to distinguish between happy faces and neutral faces. Using pattern recognition software, the researchers looked at whether it was possible to identify which individuals had bipolar or unipolar disorder and which individuals were healthy.

Dr Mourao-Miranda explains: "We know from previous studies that individuals undergoing an episode of bipolar disorder or unipolar disorder respond differently to happy faces when compared to healthy individuals. They seem to be less sensitive to happy emotions. We wanted to see if it was possible to capture these differences in brain activity and use them as a way of diagnosing an individual's condition."

The researchers found that the pattern recognition software was able to distinguish between responses to happy faces and to neutral faces much more accurately in the healthy controls than in both sets of individuals undergoing an episode of bipolar disorder or unipolar disorder. This is evidence that the patients have abnormal responses to happy faces when compared with neutral stimuli.

In particular, the accuracy of the programme in distinguishing between responses to the two stimuli was significantly lower for bipolar than unipolar disorder, suggesting malfunctions in the brain's circuitry supporting positive emotional stimuli (e.g. happy faces) in bipolar disorder that, in turn, might represent vulnerability to manic states and reflect biological processes that can distinguish bipolar from unipolar depressed individuals.

Although the study has limitations, the researchers believe that further research could lead to a tool that can be used to accurately distinguish between people with bipolar and unipolar disorder.

Coauthor Professor Mary Phillips, from the Clinical and Translational Affective Neuroscience Program at the University of Pittsburgh, adds: "Pattern recognition approaches offer the potential to help clinicians not only discriminate healthy from unwell individuals but also discriminate among patients with different psychiatric illnesses," she says.

"This approach can ultimately help improve diagnosis of those psychiatric illnesses that are often extremely difficult to accurately diagnose using current clinical criteria. This can be important for determining the best course of treatment for a patient.

"These approaches may also have wider future use in identifying abnormal patterns of activity in patient populations that can predict their likely response to different treatments and the risk of future psychiatric illness in individuals."

Explore further: Computer programs may be able to identify individuals most at risk of anxiety, mood disorders

More information: Mourao-Miranda J et al. Pattern recognition analyses of brain activation elicited by happy and neutral faces in unipolar and bipolar depression. Bipolar Disord 2012 (epub ahead of print).

Related Stories

Computer programs may be able to identify individuals most at risk of anxiety, mood disorders

February 16, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Computer programs can be taught to differentiate between the brain scans of healthy adolescents and those most at risk of developing psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression, according to ...

Shrinking brain could aid diagnosis of clinical depression

July 5, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Parts of the brain appear to shrink when people suffer from severe depression, according to research funded by the Wellcome Trust and the National Institute for Health Research.

Recommended for you

Car, stroller, juice: Babies understand when words are related

November 20, 2017
The meaning behind infants' screeches, squeals and wails may frustrate and confound sleep-deprived new parents. But at an age when babies cannot yet speak to us in words, they are already avid students of language.

Simple EKG can determine whether patient has depression or bipolar disorder

November 20, 2017
A groundbreaking Loyola Medicine study suggests that a simple 15-minute electrocardiogram could help a physician determine whether a patient has major depression or bipolar disorder.

Non-fearful social withdrawal linked positively to creativity

November 20, 2017
Everyone needs an occasional break from the social ramble, though spending too much time alone can be unhealthy and there is growing evidence that the psychosocial effects of too much solitude can last a lifetime.

Cultural values can be a strong predictor of alcohol consumption

November 20, 2017
Countries with populations that value autonomy and harmony tend to have higher average levels of alcohol consumption than countries with more traditional values, such as hierarchy and being part of a collective. This new ...

A walk at the mall or the park? New study shows, for moms and daughters, a walk in the park is best

November 17, 2017
Spending time together with family may help strengthen the family bond, but new research from the University of Illinois shows that specifically spending time outside in nature—even just a 20-minute walk—together can ...

Risk of distracted driving predicted by age, gender, personality and driving frequency

November 17, 2017
New research identifies age, gender, personality and how often people drive as potential risk factors for becoming distracted while driving. Young men, extroverted or neurotic people, and people who drive more often were ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Edna
not rated yet Jun 30, 2012
Thats cool I am agree with this article great writing stuff thanks for it

I've heard about a media player that helps to shape your positive emotions, it could be a solution to fight what you call deadly emotions while it plays your favorites music and videos, the site is but it's just by invite I've been told that the best way to get it it's to follow them on Twitter and you may receive and invite
emoplayer.com

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.