The Bipolar Brain

Living In Extreme Moods


We've all heard someone being referred to as being bipolar. It's a label that often gets thrown around but what is Bipolar Disorder anyway? Well it's a term of recent origin and refers a mood disorder that affects millions of people. Bipolar disorder as the name might suggest is the cycling between episodes of high and low states of emotion. It used to be called manic depression. On the low end, a bipolar brain is characterized by episodes of severe depression, in which a person may experience one or more of the following symptoms: persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, guilt, anger, isolation and/or hopelessness, disturbances in sleep and appetite, fatigue and loss of interest in usually enjoyed activities, problems concentrating, loneliness, self-loathing, apathy or indifference, depersonalization, loss of interest in sexual activity, shyness or social anxiety, irritability, chronic pain, lack of motivation, morbidity, or suicidal ideation. On the high end people with BD cycle through episodes of mania which are characterized with severe anxiety, irritability, loss of sleep, euphoria and grandioseness.

Up and Downs

bipolar brainThere are two main categories of bipolar disorder; Bipolar 1 and Bipolar 2. In Bipolar 1, an individual has experienced one or more manic episodes with or without major depressive episodes. In Bipolar 2 is characterized by hypomanic episodes as well as at least one major depressive episode. Hypomanic episodes are usually generally a less extreme state than mania. The cycling between the extremes can be rapid or mixed. In children with the beginning stages of the disorder they are more prone to rapid cycling.

Treatment and Research

There has been a lot of research to find the causes of BD. It has been discovered that a bipolar brain tends to run in families. However, research has not yet discovered the specific genes associated with it. There are two main ways to treat Bipolar disorder- therapy and pharmacology. There are certain extreme manic or depressive episodes that may require hospitalization.

Therapy can continue off and on for years and is usually used in conjunction with medications. Medications are usually mood stabilizers to prevent extreme episodes of mania or depression. In addition, these medications are used to help reduce rapid cycling. One of the most common drugs used to stabilize moods is lithium. Lithium is an element that is essential in neuron functioning. Its exact mechanism in helping stabilize moods is still yet unknown.

Another common drug used to stabilize moods is Valporate or Depakene. Valporate affects the function of the neurotransmitter GABA in the human brain. The exact mechanism is much like Lithium and is still being researched.

The bipolar brain has been studied by using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans. Current research is focusing on identifying and characterizing networks of interconnected nerve cells in the brain. These interactions are being looked at for being able to determine which combinations which form the basis for normal and abnormal behaviors. There are current theories that hypothesize that abnormalities in the structure and function of certain brain circuits could underlie bipolar disorder. There are studies that have found anatomical differences in areas such as the Amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus.

Pet scans have allowed researchers to see the density of cells that release the brain chemicals dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are known as monoamines are involved in sending signals between brain cells, or neurons. They are directly involved in mood regulation, stress responses, pleasure, reward, and cognitive functions like concentration, attention, and executive functions. Researchers believe it is in these chemicals that the answers about Bipolar disorder reside. Recent findings have discovered that they found that the more monoamine cells patients had, the lower their scores on tests of executive function and verbal learning. Research at the University of Michigan suggests that the altered bipolar brain chemistry is due to the excess monoamine cells may directly affect the patients' cognitive and social function.

While there seems to be more questions than answers, early diagnosis and consistent treatment provide a good prognosis of mood stability. There is currently no cure for Bipolar disorder.


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