Does Symptom Severity of Bipolar Affect Cognitive Function?

According to a recent study conducted by Colin A. Depp of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, the presence or severity of manic and depressive symptoms does not influence the level of cognitive impairment in individuals with bipolar. Existing research has indicated that nearly half of the individuals with bipolar (BD) have some type of cognitive functioning deficiency compared with nonbipolar comparison (NC) individuals. Some research has even shown that BD results in more significant cognitive impairment than schizophrenia or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), two conditions that also have symptom variability. Fluctuating symptoms is one trait of bipolar, with affect ranging from very high and euphoric to very low and depressive. Although previous studies have looked at how the presence of symptoms affects cognitive impairment, few studies have included a range of severity and fewer still have analyzed these symptoms with relation to impairment over an extended period of time.

For his study, Depp assessed the cognitive function of 49 NC individuals and 42 individuals with BD at four different times over a 6-month period. He also measured the severity of manic and depressive symptoms throughout the study. Depp discovered that although the BD participants performed far worse than the NC participants at each time point, their cognitive performance did improve with each subsequent assessment. Depp believes this was the result of practice and repeated exposure to the experiments.

The most significant finding was that the severity of symptoms did not influence the level of cognitive impairment. An increase of manic or depressive symptoms did result in a decline in cognitive functioning, and a stability of affect did not directly influence an increase in cognitive performance, although this small sample of participants may not accurately represent the larger population of individuals with bipolar. “Nonetheless, our findings suggest that fluctuations in symptoms at the level characteristic of ongoing out-patient status do not affect cognitive functioning,” said Depp. This new information could motivate researchers to include individuals with all levels of symptoms severity for future studies on cognitive functioning.

Depp, C. A., Savla, G. N., Vergel De Dios, L. A., Mausbach, B. T., Palmer, B. W. (2012). Affective symptoms and intra-individual variability in the short-term course of cognitive functioning in bipolar disorder. Psychological Medicine, 42.7, 1409-1416.

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  • Bridget


    May 31st, 2012 at 4:55 PM

    These must be pretty reassuring findings for those who either have to live with bipolar disorder themselves or know a family member who does.

  • nolan p

    nolan p

    June 1st, 2012 at 11:08 AM

    Maybe this study would have been better served had the trials not always been the same experiment, therefore skewing the results? Anyone who has had the chance to do something over and over again is bound to show improvements just via the sheer repetition of the task.

  • Alexandra


    June 4th, 2012 at 4:19 AM

    Is there anything definitive that says that the level of cognitive function is directly rrelated to bipolar disorder, or do you think that it could be possible that the lower cognitive functioning was what was there in the beginning and then the patient just happened to begin to exhibit signs of bipolar or another mental illness or disorder? I guess that in many patients it gets pretty difficult to determine for sure which leads to the other.

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