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According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2.3 million people in the United States suffer from bipolar disorder.
Every year, 2.9% of the U.S. population is diagnosed with bipolar disorder.1 But what is this condition? Bipolar disorder, or manic depression, is a serious brain disorder that causes extreme shifts in mood, energy, or functioning, and can range from episodes of mania (“highs”) to episodes of depression (“lows”). These mood swings can range in severity and may last for hours, days, or months. But what causes these mood swings? How does bipolar disorder affect the brain?
What Happens in the Brain With Bipolar Disorder?
So, to understand the effects of bipolar disorder on the brain, we must first know what part of the brain is affected by bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder affects the thinner cortical gray matter in the frontal, temporal, and parietal regions of both brain hemispheres, and also the hippocampus. However, bipolar disorder has the largest effect on the left pars opercularis (related to speech), left fusiform gyrus (allows us to recognize facial features in objects), and left rostral middle frontal cortex (related to emotional regulation and working memory). But if you’re not familiar with the brain, this can all seem confusing. To help, our mental health rehab has broken down how bipolar disorder affects the brain.
Reduced Gray Matter in the Brain
First, let’s talk about how bipolar disorder affects gray brain matter. The central nervous system is made up of two different kinds of tissue: gray matter and white matter. The gray matter in the brain enables us to control movement, memory, and emotions. It mainly serves to process information in the brain. Structures, like axons, carry signals generated by our sensory organs and include touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste. The gray matter sends signals to nerve cells in the central nervous system where nerve synapses, which are spaces between neurons, produce a response.
One study led by the USC Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute at the Keck School of Medicine of USC: ENIGMA (Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics Through Meta-Analysis) on bipolar disorder brain function showed thinning gray matter in the brains of patients with bipolar disorder. The greatest of these deficiencies were found specifically in the frontal and temporal regions of the brain. Additionally, some patients with bipolar disorder in the study also showed greater discrepancies in gray brain matter.2 When your brain matter decreases, you may experience symptoms like:
- Decreased impulse control
- Decreased control over your senses
- Difficulties regulating your reflexes or reaction time
- Difficulty with motor skills like balancing, drawing, speaking, and writing
These symptoms could explain why manic episodes often seem impulsive, careless, or reckless. Having less gray matter in the brain can also cause sluggishness and frustration, as well as trouble performing simple tasks when you are experiencing a depressed bipolar episode.
Shrinking of the Hippocampus
Bipolar brain function is also associated with the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a role in learning, consolidating, and memory retrieval. It’s also involved in verbal memory functions, stress responses, emotions, goal-directed activity, and sensorimotor integration. A recent study found that patients with bipolar disorder showed reductions in the hippocampus compared to people without mood disorders.3 When this occurs, memory is severely impacted. The right side of the hippocampus helps you associate places with specific memories, while the left side regulates verbal and visual memory. This region of the brain helps you regulate your emotional responses.
When the hippocampus shrinks, certain symptoms can occur, including:
- Depression, which can lead to depressive episodes
- Memory problems, which can lead to paranoia
- Unregulated emotional responses, which can contribute to shifts in mood
Severe shifts in mood are a common sign of bipolar disorder. People who suffer from this disorder should seek out professional mental health treatment to avoid self-destructive coping methods – such as substance abuse – and to learn how to manage their symptoms.
If you’re still wondering “how does bipolar disorder affect the brain”, to sum it all up, the effects of bipolar disorder on the brain include:
- Impaired attention, memory, and problem-solving
- Impaired ability to store memories, or associate certain places with specific memories
- Difficulty regulating your emotions
- Frustration, paranoia, and irritability, all of which can lead to manic or depressed episodes
- Learning disabilities and speech impairment
- Reduce verbal learning, declarative, and spatial working memory
- Sleep problems
- Risk-taking behaviors
Bipolar disorder can also have an impact on your ability to work, go to school, socialize, contribute to relationships, and more. If you live with or are dating someone with bipolar disorder, then you may have an understanding of how impacting this condition can be to the individual’s loved ones, as well. Furthermore, the emotional irregularity caused by bipolar disorder also increases the individual’s risk of suicide. If you know someone with this condition and they begin talking of suicide, become inactive, or are unable to move or react, seek medical help immediately.
Bipolar disorder may seem like a terrifying condition, but it doesn’t have to be. With the help of an inpatient mental health rehab, you or a loved one with this disorder can learn how to manage bipolar symptoms healthily. Call Banyan Mental Health today at 888-280-4763 to learn more about our bipolar disorder treatment and other levels of mental health care.