Bipolar Disorder

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Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive disorder, is a brain disorder that causes extreme shifts in mood that differ from the normal ups and downs most people experience. These shifts can be severe and affect a person's energy, motivation, and ability to function. The name "bipolar" reflects the extremes in mood one can experience.

Traditionally, it is a disorder known for its highs (feeling on top of the world) and lows (extremely low and possibly suicidal). This form is referred to as Bipolar I, but there are other types as well. These include bipolar II, mixed-state, and rapid-cycling types. Untreated, bipolar disorder can have a devastating effect on a person's life, including his or her relationships, job or school performance, and even desire to live.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in a given year, 5.7 million Americans ages 18 and older have bipolar disorder. Often it begins in late adolescence or early adulthood; however, it may be identified in childhood or even later in life. For many, symptoms persist for years before the condition is identified and treated.

As with any other chronic illness such as heart disease or diabetes, people with bipolar disorder can live productive lives. Medicines can truly help stabilize the condition, but it is very important that people with bipolar disorder continue their medications even when they feel better.

This section also includes information on the causes of bipolar disorder.


A definitive cause of bipolar disorder is difficult to determine. Possible causes include genetics, changes in brain chemistry, certain medications and illicit substances, and environmental factors like stress and/or major life changes.

Many scientists are studying the causes of bipolar disorder. Although bipolar disorder tends to run in families, it has been determined that there is not a single gene that is responsible. Several genes may combine with other factors to cause the illness to present itself. Eighty to 90 percent of individuals with bipolar have a relative with either depression or bipolar. This rate is seven to ten times higher than that found in the general population.

Imaging studies may offer us additional insight. PET scans and functional MRIs let scientists evaluate the living brain so that they can determine differences between the brains of people with and without bipolar disorder.

Last reviewed on 9/20/2010

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