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How Does Bipolar Disorder Affect The Brain?

According to DBSA, about 2.6% of the American population is affected by bipolar disorder. They experience severe mood swings that can either be extremely elevated or depressing moods. It affects their daily activities and changes their behavior patterns.

But is it a neurological illness? Does it affect the brain or not?

In this article, you’ll find out all you need to know about bipolar disorder and the brain.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is marked by severe mood swings and changes in energy levels. It’s different from mood swings where people experience mood fluctuations for a short period. Mood swings are mild mood changes that occur often and they do not affect people’s daily life. 

Before someone can be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the mood fluctuation must become excessive and affect their daily living. The shifts in moods come in episodes of mania (emotional highs) or episodes of depression (emotional lows). They may last for months or weeks, depending on the type of bipolar disorder. 

There are three major types of bipolar disorder that you can be diagnosed with.

Bipolar 1 disorder

This is marked by a series of manic and depressive episodes that last for at least one week. The person will be high-spirited and energetic during manic episodes or feel irritable and lose interest in activities during depressive episodes.

A person diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder will exhibit the following changes in behavior when having manic episodes:

  • Extremely hyperactive ( juggling several activities)
  • Decreased need for food or sleep
  • Rapid speech
  • Racing thoughts
  • Easily distracted

Depressive episodes, however, will come with feelings like:

  • Sadness and despair
  • Worthlessness
  • Lack of concentration
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy in the past
  • Loss of appetite and sleep
  • Frustration

Bipolar 2 disorder

Bipolar 2 disorder is marked by constant depressive episodes with fewer manic and hypomanic episodes. People diagnosed with bipolar 2 might experience other mood disorders like anxiety because of the severe depressive episodes. 

Cyclothymic disorder

This disorder is mild compared to the first two disorders. People with cyclothymic disorder experience hypomanic and depressive episodes. 

The symptoms of cyclothymic disorder are not severe enough to be considered depressive or manic episodes but they last for a long time to be considered a variety of bipolar disorder.

Parts of the brain affected by bipolar disorder 

Regardless of the kind of bipolar disorder you’ve been diagnosed with, some parts of the brain that are related to speech and emotions are physically impaired by bipolar disorder, according to many studies

Many neuroimaging projects have revealed the parts of the brain that can be linked to bipolar disorder.

1. Gray matter 

Gray matter is a tissue in the human brain that is responsible for processing information. It plays an important role in making the human body function well. The structures in the gray matter like the myelinated axons are responsible for processing signals sent from the human’s sensory organs.

The frontal and parietal lobes (cerebral cortex) surrounded by the gray matter are actively involved in processing emotional information, intelligence, motor function, thought processing, language processing, etc.

Studies have shown that when the volume of the gray matter starts decreasing, people may experience symptoms such as:

  • Lack of control over impulses
  • Inability to control emotions
  • Difficulties in making decisions
  • Sluggishness and frustration
  • Problems with motor activities

According to research, these symptoms are also common in people with bipolar disorder. This might explain why manic episodes come with impulsiveness and carelessness. 

2. Hippocampus

According to research by Molecular Psychiatry, the shape and volume of the hippocampus are associated with mood disorders. 

The hippocampus is a part of the brain that is responsible for human learning and processing and retrieving of memories. It is a part of the limbic system which is involved in the processing and regulating of emotions and memories. It is also involved in the transition of long-term memories into permanent memories.

Research has shown that people with a shrunken or smaller hippocampus tend to have mood shifts which may result in bipolar disorder. 

Some of the symptoms of a shrunken hippocampus are:

  • Disorientation, which may lead to frustration and irritation
  • Depression 
  • Memory loss

3. Brain chemicals 

There are many chemicals in the brain that make communication between nerve cells possible, called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters influence major activities in the human body such as sleep, appetite, mood, memory, learning, cognition, and emotion. 

Research has shown that an imbalance of these neurotransmitters can be linked to bipolar disorder. 

The two major neurotransmitters that are linked to mood disorders in humans are serotonin and noradrenaline. 

Serotonin is responsible for mood regulation. Low levels of serotonin in the body can be linked to depressive episodes. 

Noradrenaline is responsible for the reaction, alertness, and memories in the body. The imbalance of this neurotransmitter can cause manic and depressive episodes. 

Final Thoughts

Recent neuroimaging projects have shown that people with bipolar disorder have slight physical differences in the brain compared to people without bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness that can affect a person’s physical and mental wellbeing. The good news is, it can be treated. With ketamine therapy, bipolar sufferers can live a normal life. Ketamine therapy helps relieve the signs and symptoms rapidly without any serious side effects.

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