AsianScientist (Dec. 24, 2012) – Young people with a known risk of bipolar disorder show reduced reaction to facial emotions, according to a new study.
Researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Black Dog Institute in Sydney, Australia used brain imaging technology to show that young people at risk of bipolar disorder have clear and quantifiable differences in brain activity when compared to controls.
“We found that the young people who had a parent or sibling with bipolar disorder had reduced brain responses to emotive faces, particularly a fearful face. This is an extremely promising breakthrough,” says study leader UNSW Professor Philip Mitchell.
“We know that bipolar is primarily a biological illness with a strong genetic influence but triggers are yet to be understood. Being able to identify young people at risk will enable implementation of early intervention programs, giving them the best chance for a long and happy life,” he said.
Affecting around 1 in 75 Australians, bipolar disorder involves extreme and often unpredictable fluctuations in mood. The mood swings and associated behaviors such as disinhibited behavior, aggression, and severe depression have a significant impact on day-to-day life, careers, and relationships. Bipolar has the highest suicide rate of all psychiatric disorders.
In this study published in Biological Psychiatry, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to visualize brain activity when participants were shown pictures of happy, fearful, or calm (neutral) human faces. Participants with a genetic risk of bipolar disorder displayed significantly reduced brain activity in a specific part of the brain known to regulate emotional responses.
“Our results show that bipolar disorder may be linked to a dysfunction in emotional regulation and this is something we will continue to explore,” Mitchell said.
“And we now have an extremely promising method of identifying children and young people at risk of bipolar disorder. We expect that early identification will significantly improve outcomes for people that go on to develop bipolar disorder, and possibly even prevent onset in some people,” he said.
The results come from an NHMRC-funded Kids and Sibs study, which focuses on the genetic and environmental aspects of bipolar disorder. Based at the Black Dog Institute, the trial is still recruiting.
Source: UNSW; Photo: chuddlesworth/Flickr/CC.
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