Bipolar disorder (also known as "manic depression," however this name isn't used today) is a disorder in the brain which causes intense episodes of manic and/or depressive moods that can severely impact an individual's daily life. It usually starts in adulthood and only affects about 1-4% of the US population.
There are three main types of bipolar disorder:
Manic Episodes - characterized by having extreme feelings of happiness and high amounts of energy lasting for a week.
Depressive Episodes - characterized by extreme feelings of despair and depression lasting about two weeks. The individual may feel a sense of hopelessness and isolation, as well as other common depression symptoms during this period
Hypomania - characterized as a less severe and less intense version of manic episodes. Hypomania lasts only about four days.
Bipolar I disorder is when an individual in between neutral moods has extreme manic episodes. These episodes can last for about a week. Some people with bipolar I disorder may also experience depressive episodes and hypomania.
An individual is diagnosed with bipolar I disorder when they have experienced at least one major manic episode. Their behavior must be a significant change from their usual, and it is common for manic episodes to require the individual to be hospitalized to stay safe.
Bipolar II disorder is when an individual experiences major depressive episodes and hypomania. A diagnosis of bipolar II disorder can be made after the individual experiences at least one major depressive episode.
Usually a person with bipolar II would have other mental illnesses like anxiety or substance abuse disorder.
Cyclothymic disorder is a milder form of either bipolar I or bipolar II disorder. It is characterized by having many mood swings which include hypomania or depressive symptoms, however they aren't as severe as a manic episode or a major depressive episode. These mood changes should be apparent for at least two years and should be consistent, not stopping for more than two months.
Common treatments for bipolar disorder include medication and mood stabilizers, psychotherapy, and/or electroconvulsive therapy. Mood stabilizers can help with regulating the intense mood swings/episodes involved with bipolar disorder, balancing the brain signals which control mood. Lithium is proven to be an effective drug as well. Antidepressants may also be used to help with depressive episodes. Psychotherapy can be helpful as talking about the disorder can educate patients on their illness which allows the individual to prevent a manic or depressive episode in the future and help them find an effective medication. Talk therapies can help reduce stress from the mood changes. If none of these therapies are effective, however, ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is used. This form of therapy involves jolts of electricity on the scalp which can cause a seizure used to rewire or remodel the brain.
The exact causes of bipolar disorder are unknown. However, there are some theories that many factors together could cause the disorder such as:
Trauma (specifically trauma from childhood)
Stress (stress is proven to greatly affect mood)
Brain wiring or imbalance of brain chemicals (problems with neurotransmitters - it isn't known what exactly is wrong with them)
Drugs or Alcohol use (some medications and drugs can cause hypomania or depressive symptoms)
A Scientific Breakthrough:
A study conducted at Harvard Medical School discovered a potential clue to finding out the true cause of bipolar disorder. It was found that people with the disorder were more likely to have defective proteins caused by variants in the exon sequencing of their gene (exons carry the code that allows for protein synthesis). The specific gene that was being analyzed was the AKAP-11 gene, which is also believed to play a major role in the cause for schizophrenia.
The scientists are still researching the AKAP-11 gene and are now focusing on how these defective proteins produced by the gene causes the effects of bipolar disorder. They are also hoping to discover more genetic factors contributing to this condition.
Bipolar disorder is rare but can affect an individual's life greatly. If you believe you or someone you know may be showing signs of this condition, it is important to reach out to a psychiatrist and get effective treatment.
“What Are Bipolar Disorders?” Psychiatry.Org - What Are Bipolar Disorders?, www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/bipolar-disorders/what-are-bipolar-disorders. Accessed 3 June 2023.
“Causes of Bipolar Disorder.” Mind, www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/bipolar-disorder/causes-of-bipolar/#:~:text=What%20causes%20bipolar%20disorder%3F,physical%2C%20environmental%20and%20social%20conditions. Accessed 3 June 2023.
Institute, LEAH EISENSTADT | Broad. “Bipolar Breakthrough.” Bipolar Breakthrough | Harvard Medical School, 11 Apr. 2022, hms.harvard.edu/news/bipolar-breakthrough.