MAY 05, 2016 5:02 AM PDT

The Reality of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a serious brain illness. Classified as a mood disorder, it can wreak havoc on those who have it and their family and friends as well. It’s often referred to as manic-depressive illness or manic depression. People who have it go through unusual mood changes, and these changes cannot always be predicted or controlled. Sometimes a person is very happy and “up,” and is much more energetic and active than usual. These episodes go beyond just “having a good day” and being full of life. One of the biggest problems is that there is often very little impulse control during a manic episode, so choices can be made that are not healthy or safe.
 
Behind the mask of bipolar disorder

On the opposite end are episodes where the patient feels very sad and down. They may have low energy and have trouble with activities of daily living and are much less active. This is a depressive episode and can also result in poor choices because the patient often feels hopeless. An estimated 5.7 million Americans have bipolar disorder. There is no known cause of bipolar disorder. Some studies suggest a genetic component, but so far the specific gene for the disease has not been found.
 
A recent study that looked at data from 34,000 adults was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry and shows that after an episode of mania, a patient who is bipolar is just as likely to suffer a depressive episode as they are to suffer a bout of anxiety.
 
Participants in the study were interviewed to determine when and how often they experienced episodes of mania. Three years later they were interviewed about their incidence of depression or anxiety. Participants with mania had an approximately equal risk of developing depression (odds ratio of 1.7) or anxiety (odds ratio of 1.8). Both conditions were significantly more common among participants with than without mania. In addition, participants with depression had a significantly higher risk of developing mania (odds ratio of 2.2) or anxiety (odds ratio of 1.7) compared to those without depression. These results echoed earlier research that linked depression to anxiety and was significant because it showed the connection to bipolar disorder as well giving researchers a far more complete picture of the illness.
 
The disorder was recently the subject of a PBS documentary “Ride the Tiger: A Guide Through the Bipolar Brain” that highlighted some of the cutting edge research being done to find out more about the disease, but more importantly showcased stories of well-known and successful people who have been diagnosed with it and how they have coped.
 
The documentary was co-written by National Book award-winning author, Andrew Solomon (The Noonday Demon) and directed by duPont-Columbia award-winner, Ed Moore. While much of the documentary focuses on the biology behind the disease it also explores possible ways (with the help of certain therapies) that the brain can repair itself.
 
Ed Moore explained in a press release, "The popular headline we keep hearing today is 'Rewire your brain for happiness.’ And while it's not that simple for those with severe mental illness, there is some truth to it—that the brain is far more malleable than we ever knew. And researchers are just now starting to understand how that works and how it could be harnessed for future treatments."
 
The producers acknowledged that while the science of the disease was important to talk about, equally important was the factor of the stigma those who have it face. By telling the stories of some of these people, including former House of Representatives member Patrick Kennedy and award winning author Ellen Forney, whose books have dealt with the struggle of living with bipolar disorder. The video below talks more about the documentary, the disease and what the producers hope can come from putting a spotlight on something that is very often hidden away.
 
Sources: PBSNIMH, Columbia University Medical Center   
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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