Opinion

Latimer: Discovering new tools that can help treat mental illnesses

As our technology and understanding advance, we continue to gain insight that can bring us new tools in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.

One new study published this year in biological psychiatry may have found a biomarker to assist in early diagnosis of bipolar disorder among youth and young adults.

A team of researchers from Dalhousie University along with some Czech counterparts have published a study showing that the size of part of the brain appears to differentiate those at genetic risk of bipolar disorder from healthy control subjects.

Using MRI, scientists found that those with bipolar disorder as well as their affected and unaffected relatives had a significantly larger inferior frontal gyrus in the brain than control subjects.

These results were the same in volunteers from Canada as well as those in the Czech Republic.

This area of the brain (important for emotional regulation and socio-emotional learning) is known to be larger among individuals with early bipolar disorder.

This study was the first time the brain structure was also found to be enlarged among family members with no bipolar symptoms—meaning an abnormally large inferior frontal gyrus could serve as a biomarker for bipolar disorder.

A biomarker such as this could be helpful in early identification of people at high genetic risk of developing bipolar disorder.

It could also one day be important in efforts to prevent the manifestation of this serious mental illness.

Often when brain regions are mentioned in psychiatric illness, we have found areas to be abnormally small among affected individuals.

In this case, this region of the brain does tend to become smaller as the disease advances and is only found to be abnormally large before symptoms appear and in the early stage of the disorder.

It is not fully understood why this is the case, but researchers believe it may have to do with the brain’s plasticity and with the toxic effect bipolar disorder has on the brain.

In early stages, the brain may overcompensate for the damaging effects of the illness – causing this region of the brain to become abnormally large.

As the illness progresses, the toxic effect may accumulate and eventually overpower the brain’s ability to repair or compensate. Over time, the area shrinks and even becomes abnormally small.

Symptoms of bipolar disorder typically show up in adolescence or young adulthood and can be very debilitating for those experiencing them.

Individuals with this illness move between episodes of depression and mania. Both mood states can be dangerous and make it nearly impossible to function.

Appropriate treatment for bipolar disorder requires management from an experienced mental health professional.

This is a condition we know to have a genetic component with the risk increasing greatly when one or more family members are affected.

It would be very helpful to be able to identify youth and young adults at increased risk with a measurable biomarker so that the illness could be managed early.

The sooner it is diagnosed and treated, the less damage done to the brain and the fewer upsetting and dangerous mood episodes a person would have to experience before getting appropriate help.

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