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Brain-imaging studies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), are helping scientists understand how the brain of someone with BPAD works (Soares and Mann, 1997a; Soares and Mann, 1997b).

The results of some studies suggest that the brain of a person with BPAD may be different than brains of healthy people or people with other mental disorders. For example, one study using MRI found that the pattern of brain development in children with BPAD was similar to that in children with “multi-dimensional impairment,” a disorder that causes symptoms that overlap somewhat with BPAD and schizophrenia (Gogtay, N et al, 2007). This suggests that a common pattern of brain development may be linked to a general risk for unstable moods and may contribute to mood instability in a number of psychiatric illnesses.

Another study used functional brain imaging to examine the density of binding sites for norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine in the brains of people with BPAD. Norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine are all brain chemicals known to be involved in mood regulation, stress responses and one’s thinking abilities. The study showed a higher density of binding sites for these brain chemicals in certain areas of the brain in persons with BPAD, compared to the same areas of the brain in persons without BPAD (Zubieta, JK et al, 2000). This may mean that the brains of persons with BPAD might react more strongly, or in a different way to these crucial brain chemicals.

The information gained from these studies, along with data compiled from genetic studies, helps scientists develop a better understanding about BPAD. Through continuing research efforts, more effective treatment — and prevention — may be possible.