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Bipolar kids see aggression when it isn’t there

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

A research announcement today out of the NIMH (the National Institute of Mental Health) has apparently identified an important way that children with bipolar disorder and children without any disorders differ: Bipolar children seem to be more ready to read hostile intent and anger into other people’s faces than are normal children. 22 bipolar kids and 21 "healthy" kids were asked to rate different characteristics of photographs of people’s faces while under an fMRI machine – the new sort of brain scanner capable of indicating which areas of a person’s brain become activated as they do things like look at pictures). As a group, the bipolar children rated the faces they saw as hostile and angry, where the "healthy" children read no particular emotional expression into the faces. So far as I can tell, the faces were designed to be neutral with regard to emotional expression. While in the midst of judging the faces to be hostile, bipolar children’s brains apparently showed a characteristic pattern of activation in particular "emotion" brain centers; notably the amygdala and left prefrontal cortex. These brain regions were quiet for the healthy kids who saw the same pictures and failed to discern any particular emotion.

This is a small sample to be sure and it is difficult to say that generalizations are warrented. However, keeping that in mind, there is an interesting implication here I think. Bipolar kids may have an inborn vulnerability for having a "hair-trigger" for determining other’s aggression. They may be so ready to see hostility that they read it in when it is not objectively present. If this is the case, we ought to be able to confirm it easily enough. Bipolar children ought to be observably picking fights with other kids at a higher rate than other kids, or engaging in bullying behavior, or to be fearful at a higher rate than other kids, for instance.

I’m left wondering if there is any possible connection between this finding (of a tendancy for bipolar kids to see threats where they dont’ exist) and a tendancy towards paranoia, particularly during a manic state (when true psychosis is possible and even likely). Paranoia, of course, is the name given to the behavior a patient displays when he or she comes to believe that others (sometimes specific others and sometimes a generalized "other") are out to get them. It is normally associated with paranoid schizophrenia, but a very severe mania can also result in paranoid symptoms. This would be a really interesting finding if it resulted in our learning more about how paranoid states are set up or created by underlying biological brain conditions.

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