The Problem – Risky Behavior
One of the first things I learned when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder is that those of us who have the disease are more likely to pursue risky behavior. Some examples are excessive spending, gambling, drugs and alcohol abuse, unsafe sex and other sexual indiscretions, reckless driving, suddenly quitting a job, and many more. You may have experienced one of these behaviors, or like me, most of the above. I’ve been a naughty boy over the years. Risky behavior has been known to be a symptom of bipolar for some time, but, up until now it has not been understood why this occurs.
A study by The University of Manchester and Liverpool has shown that circuits in the brain involved in pursuing and relishing rewarding experiences are more strongly activated in people with bipolar disorder – guiding them towards risky behavior and away from safer ones. Researchers used brain imaging to identify neural pathways that are responsible for the symptoms of the disorder.
Here’s the technical stuff. Participants in the study played a game of Roulette in which they made safe or risky gambles. The researchers measured their brain activity throughout using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Their findings revealed a dominance of the brain’s “pleasure center” which drives us to seek out and pursue rewards, responding to them automatically – before conscious awareness kicks in. This ancient brain area, called the nucleus accumbens, was more strongly activated in people with bipolar disorder compared to a healthy control group.
Another key difference arose in the prefrontal cortex, a recently evolved area of the brain which is associated with conscious thought. It gives us the ability to coordinate our various drives and impulses – such as quelling our urges when faced with risky decisions – allowing people to make decisions that are less immediately rewarding but better in the long run. The researchers found that for control participants, their prefrontal cortex guided them towards safe gambles and away from risky ones. For the people with bipolar disorder the balance swung the other way: greater neural activity for risky gambles.
Professor Wael El-Deredy, who was involved with the study said:
The greater buzz that people with bipolar disorder get from reward is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it helps people strive towards their goals and ambitions, which may contribute to the success enjoyed by many people with this diagnosis. However, it comes at a cost: these same people may be swayed more by immediate rewards when making decisions and less by the long-term consequences of these actions.
Dr Liam Mason, who was also involved in the study, said: “Understanding how the brain works to regulate the pursuit of goals will help us to design, evaluate and monitor better therapies for bipolar disorder.”
According to Psychology Today, bipolar disorder is one of the oldest known psychological disorders. Though known by many names over the centuries, early descriptions of the disease go back as far as ancient Greece. In 1854, Jean-Pierre Falret first postulated a strong genetic basis. However, only recently has the medical community began to understand the causes of bipolar, rather than just the treatments. As my regular readers know, I’ve been researching many studies related to bipolar disorder and depression and become more optimistic every day. The more I learn, the more I believe, we are living in amazing times
The University of Manchester