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Brain scan shows weak connections in teens’ brains at risk of bipolar disorder

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Weak connections detected in the brain of teens at risk of bipolar disorder may help spot manic depression sooner, says new study published today. approach adulthood

This is the first time that a brain imaging study of teens at greater risk for developing bipolar disorder has shown signs of deteriorating connections between important brain regions.

Until now, medical experts had known that bipolar disorder was linked to a reduction in the connection between brain networks involved in emotional processing and thought, but how these networks evolved before the condition was unknown.

In a study published today in The American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers from UNSW Sydney, the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI), the University of Newcastle, and international institutions demonstrated that these networks deteriorate over time in young adults with a high genetic risk of developing bipolar disorder – a finding that has significant implications for future intervention strategies.

Over the course of two years, the researchers scanned the brains of 183 people using diffusion-weighted magnetic imaging (dMRI). They compared the progression of alterations in brain scans of persons with a high hereditary risk of getting the illness to a control group of people with no risk during a two-year period.

People who have a parent or sibling with bipolar disorder are at a 10 times higher chance of developing the illness than those who do not have a close family connection. During the two years between scans, the researchers noticed a loss in connectivity between regions of the brain devoted to emotion processing and cognition in 97 patients with a high genetic risk of bipolar disorder.

However, when the adolescent brain evolves to become more skilled at the cognitive and emotional reasoning necessary in adulthood, they saw the opposite: strengthening in the neural connections between these same regions in the control group of 86 people with no family history of mental illness.

The findings, according to Professor Philip Mitchell AM, a practising academic psychiatrist at UNSW Medicine & Health, provide new ideas regarding therapy and intervention in bipolar disorder emerging in young persons at higher risk.

“Our study really helps us understand the pathway for people at risk of bipolar,” he says.

“We now have a much clearer idea of what’s happening in the brains of young people as they grow up.”

Prof. Mitchell explains that as both a doctor and a researcher, he has seen firsthand how young people’s life may be flipped completely upside down when they suffer their first manic episode.

“We see a lot of bright, capable kids really enjoying life and then bipolar disorder can be a huge impediment to what they want to achieve.

“With our new knowledge about what actually happens in the brain as at-risk teenagers approach adulthood, we have the opportunity to develop new intervention strategies to either stop the condition in its tracks, or reduce the impact of the illness.”

Source: 10.1176/appi.ajp.21010047

Image Credit: Getty

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