Bipolar Disorder Changes Some Brain Development in Adolescents

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Areas of the brain that are involved in the regulation of emotions develop differently in adolescents that are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, according to a new study from the Yale School of Medicine.

Hilary Blumberg, MD, a professor of psychiatry and diagnostic radiology, who also works in the Yale Child Study Center, conducted magnetic resonance imaging over a two-year period of the brain’s prefrontal cortex and insula of 37 adolescents with bipolar and 35 without the illness.

In those areas, the adolescents who had bipolar lost more than anticipated amounts of gray matter, or neurons, and also had no increase in white matter connections, the researchers reported in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

White matter connections are critical for normal brain development. And although all adolescents lose some gray matter as they develop, those with bipolar disorder lost far more. All in all, the changes observed seem to indicate that brain circuits that regulate emotions develop differently in young people who are bipolar.

Bipolar disorder often first appears in adolescence and is characterized by severe shifts in mood and activity levels. Those with the disorder also have a higher risk of suicide and substance abuse.

“In adolescence, the brain is very plastic so the hope is that one day we can develop interventions to prevent the development of bipolar disorder,” Blumberg said in a statement.

Brain connections
Areas of the brain involved in emotional regulation impacted in adolescents with bipolar disorder.

In adolescents with bipolar disorder, key areas of the brain that help regulate emotions develop differently, a new study by Yale School of Medicine researchers shows.

In brain areas that regulate emotions, adolescents with bipolar disorder lose larger-than-anticipated volumes of gray matter, or neurons, and show no increase in white matter connections, which is a hallmark of normal adolescent brain development, according to the imaging study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

The differences were noted in the prefrontal cortex and insula in the magnetic resonance imaging scans — repeated over a two-year period — of 37 adolescents with bipolar disorder when compared to the scans of 35 adolescents without the disorder.

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