Researchers identify differences in the brains of people at high risk of bipolar disorder

January 9, 2017
Researchers identify differences in the brains of people at high risk of bipolar disorder
Many patients experience distressing and disruptive symptoms for many years until receiving proper treatment for bipolar disorder, which was previously known as manic depressive illness. Credit: Shutterstock

Young people with bipolar disorder and those at high genetic risk of developing the illness have weak connections in the emotional areas of their brains, a world-first Australian study has found. 

It is hoped the findings will lead to new tools to identify and manage those at risk before the onset of the disorder and help reduce its impact once it develops.

The study, published today in the prestigious Nature journal Molecular Psychiatry, was a collaboration between researchers from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane and UNSW in Sydney.

Researchers conducted MRI scans on the brains of three groups: people who had been diagnosed with ; people who had a first-degree relative (parent, sibling or child) with bipolar and who were at high themselves; and people unaffected by bipolar disorder.

They found networks of weaker connections between different brain regions in both the bipolar and high-risk subjects and disturbances in the connections responsible for regulating emotional and cognitive processes.

"We know that changes in these brain wiring patterns will impact upon a person's capacity to perform key emotional and cognitive functions," said study author Scientia Professor Philip Mitchell from UNSW's School of Psychiatry.

"Each year we will be following up with participants from this study who are at high genetic risk of developing bipolar disorder, to see if the brain changes identified in MRI scans reveal who will develop episodes of mania," Professor Mitchell said.

Bipolar disorder is a debilitating illness affecting about one in 70 Australians. It typically involves unstable mood swings between manic 'highs' and depressive 'lows'. The age of onset is usually between 18 and 30 years.

Professor Michael Breakspear, from QIMR Berghofer and Brisbane's Metro North Hospital and Health Service, said the research team hoped to use the findings to develop a way of identifying those at risk of bipolar before the onset of the disorder.

"At the moment we don't have any markers or tests for predicting who is at risk of developing bipolar disorder, as we do for heart disease," Professor Breakspear said.

"If we can develop a tool to identify and confirm those who are at the very highest risk, then we can advise them on how to minimise their risk of developing bipolar, for example, by avoiding illicit drugs and minimising stress. These discoveries may open the door to starting people on medication before the illness, to reduce the risk of manic episodes before the first one occurs.

"Our long-term goal is to develop imaging-based diagnostic tests for bipolar. At the moment, diagnosis relies on the opinion of a doctor. Recent UNSW-led research found an average delay of six years between when a person with bipolar experiences their first manic episode and when they receive a correct diagnosis," Professor Breakspear said.

"Many people are incorrectly diagnosed with depression or other disorders. This delays the start of proper treatment with medications that are specific to bipolar disorder. Bipolar has the highest suicide rate of any mental illness, so it's crucial that we diagnose people correctly straight away so they can start receiving the right treatment."

The study was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Landsdowne Foundation.

Explore further: Study finds average six-year delay between onset and diagnosis of bipolar disorder

More information: G Roberts et al. Structural dysconnectivity of key cognitive and emotional hubs in young people at high genetic risk for bipolar disorder, Molecular Psychiatry (2016). DOI: 10.1038/mp.2016.216

Related Stories

Study finds average six-year delay between onset and diagnosis of bipolar disorder

July 25, 2016
Crucial opportunities to manage bipolar disorder early are being lost because individuals are waiting an average of almost six years after the onset of the condition before diagnosis and treatment.

Changes in brain connectivity protect against developing bipolar disorder

January 5, 2016
Naturally occurring changes in brain wiring can help patients at high genetic risk of developing bipolar disorder avert the onset of the illness, according to a new study led by researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine ...

Adults with bipolar disorder at equal risk for anxiety or depression following mania

May 3, 2016
Adults with bipolar disorder are just as likely to develop anxiety as depression following an episode of mania, according to data from a national survey of more than 34,000 adults. This finding, published today in Molecular ...

Kids with bipolar disorder more likely to abuse drugs, alcohol: study

September 16, 2016
(HealthDay)—For some teens with bipolar disorder, the risk that they will abuse alcohol and drugs may increase as they get older, a new study suggests.

Troubled childhood may boost bipolar risk: study

October 20, 2016
(HealthDay)—Adults who suffered childhood abuse may be at increased risk for bipolar disorder, researchers report.

Study offers clues to early detection of bipolar disorders in high-risk children

March 3, 2015
New research published today in the American Journal of Psychiatry indicates a strong link between subthreshold manic episodes and likelihood of developing bipolar disorder in children of parents with bipolar disorder. The ...

Recommended for you

Depression changes structure of the brain, study suggests

July 21, 2017
Changes in the brain's structure that could be the result of depression have been identified in a major scanning study.

Many kinds of happiness promote better health, study finds

July 21, 2017
A new study links the capacity to feel a variety of upbeat emotions to better health.

Study examines effects of stopping psychiatric medication

July 20, 2017
Despite numerous obstacles and severe withdrawal effects, long-term users of psychiatric drugs can stop taking them if they choose, and mental health care professionals could be more helpful to such individuals, according ...

Study finds gene variant increases risk for depression

July 20, 2017
A University of Central Florida study has found that a gene variant, thought to be carried by nearly 25 percent of the population, increases the odds of developing depression.

In making decisions, are you an ant or a grasshopper?

July 20, 2017
In one of Aesop's famous fables, we are introduced to the grasshopper and the ant, whose decisions about how to spend their time affect their lives and future. The jovial grasshopper has a blast all summer singing and playing, ...

Perceiving oneself as less physically active than peers is linked to a shorter lifespan

July 20, 2017
Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about equally active as other people your age?

0 comments

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.