Can a brain scan detect bipolar disorder? The answer to that question is not a simple one. The causes and effects that bipolar disorder has on brain structure are hard to disentangle. Conducting brain scans for bipolar disorder is an interesting concept, something that scientists may be moving toward based on new and exciting research that sheds light on the idea of brain scans detecting mental health disorders.

Mapping Brain Regions Associated With Bipolar Disorder

A bipolar brain does not look like a healthy brain. For example, ventricles (fluid-filled cavities in the center of the brain) are enlarged in people with bipolar disorder. A landmark study has identified specific brain abnormalities of people with bipolar disorder.

Essentially, a team of researchers created the first “roadmap” of key brain regions underlying the biology of bipolar disorder. Using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology they took bipolar brain scan images and compared them to healthy, unrelated control subjects. They found abnormalities in regions of the prefrontal cortex, which is largely noted for controlling processes such as emotional processing and decision making.

Other studies have also tried to pinpoint brain regions associated with bipolar disorder. For example, one study looked at adolescents with bipolar disorder and found abnormalities in some of the brain regions that are thought to be involved in the regulation of mood. More specifically, bipolar adolescents displayed a reduction in amygdala volume. The amygdala is a relatively small structure located below the cortical layers. It plays an important role in emotion regulation, broadly speaking.

Bipolar patients responded differently to visual stimuli than people without the disorder did. They found that when bipolar individuals reported that they were in the “middle state” their brains looked the same as controls. However, if a participant reported being in a state of mania or depression they displayed less activation of their visual cortex (as measured through functional MRI). Differences were also observed in other regions of the brain important for the senses. This suggests that altered sensory processing, especially visual, may be an aspect of altered mood states in bipolar disorder. Do people with bipolar disorder physically view the world different during mania or depression? Bipolar brain scans images might support this idea.

Study Shows Thinning Grey Matter in Bipolar Patients

Scientists found that the prefrontal cortex displayed thinning grey matter in people with bipolar disorder. Grey matter refers to the tissue of the brain that consists mainly of neuron cell bodies and branching dendrites (the parts of the neuron that send and receive information). The longer someone had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the thinner their cortex was. One of the more surprising results of this study was that those subjects who took the medication lithium seemed to be protected from this bipolar grey matter cortical thinning.

The Future of Brain Imaging and Bipolar Disorder

How can brain imaging be used in the future of bipolar disorder treatment? Brain scanning may be able to aid in the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Specifically, there is research to suggest that brain scans can be used to distinguish between depression and bipolar disorder. This revelation is important because when a person who has bipolar disorder first begins displaying symptoms of the disorder, it can be difficult to tell apart from major depression. If someone is misdiagnosed, it will delay the time until their treatment is effective. Thus, earlier diagnosis will prove to be critical in advancing the treatment of bipolar disorder.

Many people attempt to self medicate their bipolar disorder by using drugs or alcohol. This behavior can quickly lead to addiction developing. If you or a loved one struggle with a substance use disorder that grew from attempting to manage a mental health disorder, help is available. Contact The Recovery Village to speak with a representative about how professional treatment can address substance use disorders and any co-occurring mental health disorders. You deserve a healthier future, call today.