Besides severe mood swings, bipolar disorder sufferers also report brain ‘fog’, which, studies have shown, is rooted in real brain activities.
Sufferers of bipolar mood disorder know only too well how dramatically they oscillate between extreme – often manic – spells of elation, on the one hand, and depths of the darkest despair on the other. The medical condition is often so debilitating it makes it near impossible for sufferers to go about their daily lives without treatment.
Aside from severe mood swings, those with the condition also frequently report that their ability to think coherently is affected by the disorder. Many complain of ‘fuzzy’ or ‘imprecise’ thought patterns – a kind of ‘brain fog’, for lack of a better description. Research indicates that the effect is far from psychosomatic and, instead, rooted in very real brain activities that can be monitored by sophisticated brain-scanning techniques… and could have a significant effect on the way in which the disorder is not only diagnosed, but also treated.
Bipolar and the brain
Researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School and Depression Center conducted tests, which required periods of sustained cognitive concentration by the subjects, as well as brain scans on a large sampling of people who had experienced either major depression or bipolar disorder. Compared with the results of the same tests conducted on a sampling of people who had no diagnosed mental health conditions, both the depression and bipolar sufferers fared notably poorer.
Then, when reviewing the brain scans, the researchers found that those suffering from both depression and bipolar disorder had markedly different levels of activity in the right posterior parietal cortex, the region of the brain that is responsible for ‘executive function’ – activities such as working memory, problem solving and reasoning. Compared with the healthy subjects, the depressives showed higher activity in this area of the brain, while those with bipolar registered markedly less brain activity.
“In all, we show a shared cognitive dysfunction in [subjects] with mood disorders, which were pronounced in the cognitive control tests and more nuanced in scans,” says neuropsychologist Dr Kelly Ryan, lead author of the study, which was published in Brain Magazine.
Senior study author, Dr Scott Langenecker, added that the neurobiological results of the study are “a recognition that … mental diseases have more overlap in the basic brain and genetic signatures” than were at first assumed.
The researchers hope that their findings could influence strategies for clinical screening, diagnosis and treatment of mood disorders, such as bipolar.
Living with bipolar disorder
While bipolar disorder is not attributed to any single cause, it has long been accepted that the condition is due to abnormalities in the way some nerve cells in the brain function or communicate. As a result, the disorder makes sufferers more susceptible to emotional and physical stress and, as such, can be triggered by upsetting experiences, substance use or even lack of sleep, although none of these factors is seen to actually cause the disorder.
The potentially debilitating mood disorder affects three to five percent of the population and shows no discrepancy between men or women. While the most effective treatment for bipolar is one that combines medication with psychotherapy, there are also certain lifestyle choices that can supplement treatments. These include exercising and getting plenty of sleep, engaging in ‘therapeutic’ activities such as art or gardening, avoiding alcohol and non-prescribed drugs, and empowering oneself by learning as much as possible about the disorder.
The South African College of Applied Psychology (SACAP) offers rigorous training in areas of psychology, such a mood disorders, as part of its numerous psychology courses. If you’d like to qualify yourself in the helping professions, or simply want to learn more about mental health conditions and their treatments, then enquire now about studying at SACAP.