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02-08 Teens with bipolar disorder who attempt suicide have altered brain circuitry


Teens with bipolar disorder who attempt suicide have altered brain circuitry

Bipolar disorder is a serious brain illness characterized by mood swings. Approximately 50 percent people with bipolar disorder attempt suicide during their lifetime and as many as 20 percent may die by suicide.

A recent study on adolescents and teens with bipolar disorder showed that there are distinct differences in the brains of those who attempt suicide and those who do not.

The study involved 26 participants with bipolar disorder who had attempted suicide before (the attempter group) and 42 participants with bipolar disorder who had not attempted suicide (the nonattempter group).

Since the frontal-limbic system of young adults is still in the development stage, the researchers could understand the origin of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Senior study author Hilary Blumberg, a John and Hope Furth Professor of Psychiatric Neuroscience, professor in psychiatry, radiology and biomedical imaging and in the Yale Child Study Center, and her colleagues took specialized MRI scans of the brains of both the groups and discovered numerous distinctions.

In the attempter group, they found a subtle reduction in the quantity and activity of brain circuitry responsible for controlling emotion and impulses. There was also less volume and activity in the white matter that connects various areas of the brain.

The results indicated that the frontal cortex that regulates circuitry functioned poorly which can aggravate emotional pain and contribute to problems creating alternative solutions to suicide. It also increases the likelihood of a suicidal attempt.

Studies on adults who had attempted suicide showed that there were problems in the frontal-limbic system, responsible for producing emotions and impulses and the frontal cortex which regulates emotions and impulses.

Blumberg noted that continued research into the development of brain circuitry processes that lead to suicide could help recognize individuals who may be at risk. The results of the study could help contribute to new methods to reduce risk factors and create therapies to strengthen brain circuitry.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder cannot be cured, but it can be treated and managed so that patients can lead a more normal life. Medication and professional therapy can make a great deal of difference in their lives.

The mood swings during the disorder are beyond the normal blues and there are changes in appetite, sleep patterns, energy levels and the ability to think clearly and make decisions. When a person feels happy and ‘up’ with much more energy than usual, it is called a manic episode. At other times, a person can feel very ‘down’ and depressed with accompanying lethargy and lack of interest in things. This is a depressive episode. The gap between the mood changes varies from person to person. The disorder, if untreated, can cause disruptions in school or work and can induce suicidal thoughts.

Symptoms to watch for in children and teens

  • Acting very happy or silly in an abnormal way
  • Getting irritated easily
  • Fast speech pattern and inability to remain focused
  • Does not get tired, difficulty sleeping
  • Poor concentration
  • Discussing sex more often
  • Taking risks

A diagnosis of bipolar disorder can be upsetting, but learning as much as possible about the disorder and finding the best professional help and support groups are the best steps to be taken. Sovereign Health provides state-of-the-art treatment for mental health disorders, including bipolar disorder. Our therapists are expert in their particular disciplines and work diligently to match each patient with the specific medication that works best for them. Patients can also learn coping skills through individual and group therapies. Call our 24/7 helpline to learn more.

About the author

Veronica McNamara is a content writer for Sovereign Health. She is a former registered nurse who enjoys writing about the causes and treatment of addictions and behavioral health disorders. She is a proponent of further public education on the subject of mental illness which, unfortunately, still bears an unwarranted stigma. For more information and other inquiries on this article, contact the author at

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