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What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic-depression, is a treatable brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. It can affect a person's thoughts, feelings, mood and overall functioning.

The symptoms of bipolar disorder typically appear in the late teens or early adults years. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe, they are different from the normal ups and down that everyone goes through from time to time. The symptoms of bipolar disorder can lead to damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide.
Signs and Symptoms:

Signs of a manic state
  • A long period of feeling "high", or an overly happy or outgoing mood
  • Extreme irritability
  • Talking faster than is normal, jumping from one idea to another, having racing thoughts
  • Being easily distracted
  • Being overly restless
  • Decreased sleep or not feeling tired
  • Having an unrealistic belief in one's abilities
  • Behaving impulsively
  • Engaging in high-risk behaviors,such as reckless driving, gambling or excessive spending

Signs of a depressive state
  • An overly long period of feeling as or hopeless
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Feeling tired or "slowed down"
  • Lows elf-esteem
  • Having difficulty concentrating, remembering, and making decisions
  • Being restless or irritable
  • Changes in eating, sleeping, or other habits
  • Thinking about death or suicide, or attempting suicide
What causes bipolar disorder?

Most scientists agree  that there is no single cause for bipolar disorder. It is likely that many factors act together to produce the illness or increase the risk.

Bipolar disorder tends to run in families and some research suggests that people with certain genes are more likely to develop bipolar disorder. Children with a parent or sibling who has bipolar disorder are more likely to develop the illness, compared to children who do not have a family history of the disorder.

Scientists are also studying illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia to identify genetic differences that may increase a person's risk for developing bipolar disorder.

However, genes are not the only risk factor for bipolar disorder.  Identical twin studies have shown that the twin of a person with bipolar disorder does not always develop the disorder, despite the fact that identical twins share all of the same genes.

Brain-imaging tools, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), allow researchers to take pictures of the living brain at work. Some imaging studies show how the brains of people with bipolar disorder may differ from the brains of healthy people or people with other mental disorders. One study using MRI found the pattern of brain development in children with bipolar disorder similar to that in children with "multi-dimensional impairment", a disorder that causes symptoms that overlap somewhat with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Another MRI study found that the brain's prefrontal cortex in adults with bipolar disorder tends to be smaller and function less well compared to adults who don't have bipolar disorder. The prefrontal cortex is a brain structure involved in "executive" functions such as problem solving and making decisions.