The mental illness bipolar disorder can be spotted in the brain using neuroimaging techniques, scientists now say. Modern magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, scans of bipolar patients’ brains differ from those of the brains of people without the disorder, and researchers were able to spot the differences in a study. Currently, bipolar disorder is diagnosed from symptoms, which requires case-by-case judgment and is prone to error. Bipolar is particularly difficult to diagnose until some time after the onset of the condition, and it is hoped that neuroimaging will enable patients to receive treatment in the early stages.
Because bipolar disorder affects behavior and the ability to regulate emotional responses, the delay in diagnosis can mean patients might not even know they have a problem until the illness has already had negative effects on social relationships, employment, and other aspects of day-to-day living. Diagnosing the disease earlier by seeing the changes in the brain rather than waiting for it to be demonstrated in behavior means people can get medical treatment and learn coping strategies before the disease has done serious damage.
For example, people who are starting to show signs of bipolar disorder can have suspicions resolved or confirmed by an MRI scan even without having symptoms that would ordinarily be severe enough for a diagnosis. Additionally, people with a family history of bipolar disorder, or with conditions such as anxiety disorders, ADHD, or substance abuse problems that are particularly common in people with bipolar disorder, can get checked out in the late teens or early 20s, the typical age of onset of bipolar symptoms, even if they aren’t showing those symptoms.
People who are diagnosed early may not need pharmaceutical intervention. Though drugs are ordinarily used along with therapy, a study begun in December is looking at a new type of therapy called Recovery focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that is centered not on the illness, as current therapies for bipolar disorder are, but on the patient’s overall lifestyle, the complex interplay of the disorder, other mental and physical issues the person might have, and the external challenges that face them.