Elevated Cortisol May Increase Risk of Bipolar for Some Children

Children of parents with bipolar may be at higher risk for developing mood issues as well. According to a new study, children whose parents had been diagnosed with bipolar showed an elevated level of cortisol when exposed to stressful situations. The study, conducted by researchers at the Concordia University, is the first of its kind to reveal how this segment of children responds to stress stimuli. “Previous research has shown that children of parents with bipolar are four times as likely to develop mood issues as those from parents without the condition,” says senior author Mark Ellenbogen, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Psychopathology at Concordia University and a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development. “The goal of our study was to determine how this is happening.”

Cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone, is the hormone that is produced when the body is experiencing anxiety. The researchers compared the cortisol levels of children whose parents had bipolar to the levels found in children whose parents did not. “Our study demonstrates that affected children are biologically more sensitive to the experience of stress in their natural and normal environment compared to unaffected peers,” says Ellenbogen. “This higher reactivity to stress might be one explanation of why these offspring end up developing disorders and is a clear risk factor to becoming ill later on.”

This new research may provide better intervention and prevention treatment for people who are at increased risk for developing bipolar. “We think we might be beginning to understand where we can intervene to actually prevent this increased sensitivity from developing,” said Ellenbogen in a related article. “We believe this sensitivity develops during childhood and our suspicion is that if you could teach both parents and their offspring on how to cope with stress, how to deal with problems before they turn into larger significant stressors and difficulties, this would have a profound impact.”

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • gina


    May 11th, 2011 at 7:08 PM

    doesn’t look like a pretty picture…but at least we see the picture now…and hopeful gt ere will be a remedy to the problem soon. it’s amazing how such details are actually captured by these researches and studies. we should be so very thankful to all the people who are a part of these, especially the some people that devote their entire lives to such causes.

  • ColeS


    May 12th, 2011 at 4:34 AM

    Are these levels ones that are routinely checked?



    May 12th, 2011 at 7:42 PM

    Although this is not a good thing,there still is one positive from the finding-Children of parents with bipolar may be monitored more often and better because they are more prone.

  • sophia


    May 14th, 2011 at 10:09 PM

    Interesting link there. Perhaps the children of bipolar parents could be given some kind of cortisol inhibitor then when they are under undue stress? Is that a possibility? At least knowing that happens means that could be explored.

  • Kyle


    May 14th, 2011 at 11:02 PM

    Since bipolar sufferers have major mood issues, it’s obviously going to have an effect on their kids. Children with parents who have such problems end up developing their own problems because of it then? How unlucky can you get…

  • wendy


    May 15th, 2011 at 4:41 PM

    A parent’s attitude has a significant effect on the mental growth of their children. Imagine that. Next they will be saying that it’s linked to obesity. Isn’t everything?

  • Wayne


    May 15th, 2011 at 5:29 PM

    @wendy, I get what you’re implying there. However I really don’t see how bipolar could be linked to obesity by any stretch…unless you were being sarcastic and it went right over my head. Please explain.

  • Nadine


    May 15th, 2011 at 5:52 PM

    @Wayne: The idea of a tentative link wouldn’t be unreasonable actually. Cortisol is a stress hormone and one of its effects is that it causes excess body fat. It’s hardly a direct link but it’s there. Just because it seems like everything is being linked to obesity doesn’t mean that it should become a joke.

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