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Using MRIs to Accurately Diagnose Bipolar Disorder


Bipolar disorder is a serious psychiatric illness that affects approximately 2.6 percent of those 18 or over in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Unfortunately, only about 20% of people with this disorder receive an accurate diagnosis the first time around. For some it may be years before it is finally diagnosed.

Part of the reason for this is because hypomanic episodes are often not reported by patients to their doctors because they may not seem truly abnormal. Also, hypomania can be very pleasant – after all, who wouldn’t enjoy a period of higher than normal energy levels? Sadly, many don’t get diagnosed until they have a full-blown manic episode.

Fortunately, new research lead by Mary Philips of the University of Pittsburgh may be paving the way for using an MRI scan to diagnose bipolar disorder. The study looked at and compared brain scans of two groups –a group of people with depression only, and a group of people who had bipolar disorder. These two groups have scans revealing “functionally coupled” brain activity in both the frontal cortex and the amygdala - two regions of the brain involved with emotions.

Although both groups of people have episodes of depression, the scans revealed a distinct and different pattern in those with bipolar disorder. Ms. Philips indicated that individuals with bipolar disorder often have abnormalities between the right amygdala and the right and pre-fontal cortex.

Using an MRI to diagnose bipolar disorder would allow people to get the appropriate treatment up front rather than suffering from the symptoms of this dreaded disorder for years and years. Ms. Philips is hopeful that MRIs may be used to predict the disorder in teens before it begins to develop.

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