Adolescents with Bipolar I Have Unique White Matter Structure

An emerging field of research has focused on identifying neurological markers of psychiatric illnesses. Being able to detect who is most at risk for psychological problems can provide an opportunity for early intervention and treatment. Existing research has shown that there is a strong genetic predisposition for bipolar, depression, and schizophrenia. Numerous studies have explored the differences in neurological structures among these conditions, yet few studies have focused on examining brain matter in the earliest stages of the illnesses. Jim Lagopoulos of the Clinical Research Unit of the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney in Australia wanted to find out if neurological differences were evident in adolescents with bipolar as young adulthood and late adolescence is when symptoms often first appear.

Lagopoulos conducted a study comparing the white matter of 58 young adult participants with bipolar (BD) to the white matter of 40 participants with no psychiatric history. He found that the BD participants had broad variations in white matter compared to the control participants. Specifically, he discovered that white matter abnormalities existed in the BD participants in several neurological regions, including the anterior and superior corona radiate and the corpus callosum. These are key neurological areas that affect executive function and attention, deficits common in BD. Additionally, Lagopoulos also found unique variances between BD I and BD II participants. Those who were diagnosed with BD I had more evident changes and abnormalities in white matter when compared to the BD II participants.

Although the results of this study clearly show that a unique pattern of white matter structure in BD exists, more research needs to be done to determine if this pattern is solely a marker for BD or also an indicator of schizophrenia or depression. Also, future efforts should try to establish whether these neurological abnormalities explain behavioral issues that often accompany BD. “For example, it is evident in the white matter literature relating to BD, the reported abnormalities may be linked to other key phenomena such as suicidal behavior or aggression,” said Lagopoulos. Until that time, this study adds supporting evidence to the growing body of research linking neurological abnormalities to psychiatric issues in their earliest stages.

Lagopoulos, J., Hermens, D.F., Hatton, S.N., Tobias-Webb, J., Griffiths, K., et al. (2013). Microstructural white matter changes in the corpus callosum of young people with bipolar disorder: A diffusion tensor imaging study. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59108. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059108

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  • kate


    April 30th, 2013 at 1:20 PM

    bipolar disorder and changes in white matter is something completely different from studying white matter to determine who could be at risk. the white matter differences could be a result of the issue themselves rather than a predictor for all we know. surprised to see this was not considered in the study at a much earlier time.

  • Will


    April 30th, 2013 at 11:53 PM

    Amazing how minute differences such as these can contribute to an illness or disorder.

    This study is commendable considering how useful its results can be.

    Imagine being able to diagnose and prevent bipolar! That would be great.

    But we should not get too carried away either. It would be a lot better if the study is first expanded to a larger group and the results coordinated to ensure the findings are absolutely right.

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