Brain Activity Of Kids With Bipolar Disorder Suggests New Treatment Options

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Bipolar disorder is brutal at any age, but it can be especially difficult for children who are diagnosed with it. Bipolar disorder causes unusual shifts in mood, activity levels, energy and the ability to carry out daily tasks. For a child, this can make managing school work, making friends and keeping up with chores very challenging. New research on the treatment of bipolar disorder is being done all the time, and it is especially exciting when it pertains to children.

The latest research suggests children diagnosed with bipolar disorder have greater activation in the right amygdala—a brain region that is very important for emotional reaction—than bipolar adults when viewing emotional faces. The findings indicate to the authors of the study that bipolar children might benefit from treatments that target emotional face identification, such as “brain games” played on a computer or group as well as behavioral health services.

The study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, is the first of its kind to directly compare brain changes in bipolar children to bipolar adults using data from 100 functional MRI brain imaging studies with a large pool of participants (several thousand). Despite the fact that bipolar disorder is one of the most debilitating psychiatric illnesses that affects children and adults worldwide, very few studies have been done to explore whether brain or behavioral changes exist that are specific to children with the disorder versus bipolar adults. Around 40 perfect of adults have reported that their bipolar disorder started in childhood.

MRI studies have begun to investigate the neural mechanisms underlying bipolar disorder, but not many have directly compared differences in children and adults with the disorder. The research team conducted this large scale study in order to bridge the gap, directly comparing fMRI findings in bipolar children versus bipolar adults, both relative to non-bipolar participants. The team also analyzed studies using emotional stimuli, which showed much greater levels of brain activation in bipolar children.

Despite the best current treatments available, bipolar disorder takes a large toll on children, including problems with parents, friends and education. There are high rates of psychiatric hospitalization and even suicide attempts. Seeking treatment at an early age from a child psychiatrist does help, but it cannot prevent the bipolar episodes from happening. Now that we know children’s brains are affected in specific, identifiable ways by bipolar disorder, more research is needed.

Understanding more about the brains of children and adults who are affected by mental illness is important. Locating the underlying brain changes of bipolar children could lead to new, brain-based ways to improve how the disorder is diagnosed and treated. This could lead to huge breakthroughs in treating bipolar disorder, impacting bipolar children’s lives for the better. Ongoing studies are currently being done to see if the computer-based “brain games” as well as group or individual therapy might improve the brain changes in a more targeted way.