Accelerated Brain Loss Documented in Bipolar Disease

Author:  Falishia Sloan

Institution:  Eastern Virginia Medical School
Date:  July 2007

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have found that the brains of people who suffer from continued episodes of bipolar disorder shrink at a progressively faster rate. This new insight into bipolar disorder shows that relapses of this life-long condition actually produce worsening changes in the brain, possibly affecting current treatments.

The study, published in the Journal of Biological Psychiatry, could possibly alter the way that bipolar disorder is treated. The researchers, led by Dr. Andrew McIntosh, lead researcher and senior lecturer in psychiatry, determined that the hippocampus, fusiform and cerebellum regions of the brain experience the most loss in grey matter in those with the disease. These regions are known to control the memory, face recognition and coordination functions of the brain, respectively.

"For the first time, we have shown that as people with bipolar disorder get older, a small amount of tissue is lost in parts of the brain that are associated with memory and the coordination of thoughts and actions," McIntosh said. "The amount of brain tissue that's lost is greater in people with multiple episodes of illness and is associated with a decline in some areas of mental ability.

"Although we do no yet know the cause of this brain shrinkage, it may be that repeated episodes of illness harm the brain and lead to the decline. Another possibility is that the brain changes are caused by stress or genetic factors, which tend to lead both to more frequent illness episodes and to greater brain loss. Further research will be required."

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is typified by episodes of depression and episodes of mania, in which sufferers may experience hallucinations or delusions. People with this disorder typically have a lot of energy, sleep less and are at a considerable risk of suicide.

Written by Falishia Sloan