The Science Behind Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a psychological disorder centered around two distinct mood episodes: mania and depression. There are two types of bipolar disorder: Type 1 and Type 2. While Type 1 includes long periods of elation and depression, Type 2 involves a more depressed person with less severe manic episodes. In a case of less intense manic and depressed episodes, a doctor would diagnose a patient with cyclothymia [1]. There are many reasons why such an illness could arise: genetics, faulty neuronal connections, and neurotransmitters. Nature v. nurture is an argument which inquires whether hereditary traits are more powerful than the environment in which one lives in. With this argument in mind, one side does not overcome the other: both are equally important. Studies highlight that the recurrence rate for bipolar disorder in relatives of bipolar patients is approximately 11%. Although this may seem minimal, it is 10 times more likely than in the general population, shedding light on the extreme genetic tie-in bipolar patients [2]. In addition, many twin studies also show a large concordance rate with the rate for fraternal (dizygotic) twins having a concordance rate of 14%, while identical (monozygotic) twins have a concordance rate of 72%. Evidently, the difference between monozygotic and dizygotic twins is significant, yet both express the genetic ties in bipolar disorder. On the other hand, people are not products of their environments. In bipolar patients, environmental triggers may be but are not limited to: physical and sexual abuse, living with an emotionally uncontrolled individual, etc. [3].  

Similarly, another cause of bipolar disorder is centered around the neuronal connections in the brain. Neuronal pathways are made by the brain in order for neurons to communicate effectively and, during the process, the brain prunes unnecessary neurons. When the brain goes haywire and begins to create faulty neuronal connections, the symptoms of bipolar disorder begin to occur. Utilizing a fMRI scan, neurologists have been able to conclude that the brain’s ability to prune other neurons is obstructed, causing neurons to create faulty pathways leading to irregular brain activity. The irregular brain activity causes bizarre behavior: mania and depression [1].

One form of treatment that is effective in reducing the severity of the manic/depressive episodes is lithium. Doctors are not aware why lithium helps stabilize mood, but they believe that lithium strengthens neural connections and leads to a more stable person. Studies convey that “lithium can significantly decrease suicide risk” and it “helps prevent future manic and depressive episodes” [4]. Despite the pros of lithium, lithium can affect kidney and thyroid function, which is why doctors order blood tests periodically to monitor the body’s well-being.

Psychiatrists often recommend treatment that encompasses a personalized, holistic approach. One hypothetical proposal that was created for a typical patient with bipolar disorder entails daily dosages of lithium with regular, periodic visits to the doctor for testing, and to encourage the person to become more social with friends/family and try to create bonds with people since the environment of the person has a tremendous effect on the well-being of the patient. If the treatment is not successful with regulating bipolar episodes, electroconvulsive therapy will be used and progress will be monitored from there.

One of the main causes of mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder is an imbalance in the number of neurotransmitters present between neurons.  Neurotransmitters are a significant component of the nervous system that plays a critical role in communication between the brain and body. Neurons use neurotransmitters to relay signals to one another. These neurotransmitters are located in the synaptic vesicles and released when Ca2+ enters the axon terminal in response to the action potential. They bind to receptors on the membrane of postsynaptic cells. Neurotransmitters are a key microscopic component of many psychiatric disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder.

Overall, there is still much research to be conducted about bipolar disorder. Its complexity highlights our lack of knowledge on the brain as a whole and, in the future, more research on the brain should be conducted to find concrete reasoning for the causes of bipolar disorder.


1. TEDEducation. “What Is Bipolar Disorder? – Helen M. Farrell.” YouTube, YouTube, 9 Feb. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrWBhVlD1H8

2. “Determine the National and International Incidence Of.” JustAnswer, 15 Oct. 2011, www1.appstate.edu/~hillrw/BipolarWebPage/Epidemiology.html

3. “Bi-Polar: nature, or nurture?.” www.creativesolutionscounselinggr.com/2011/06/bi-polar-nature-or-nurture.html 

4. “Lithium for Bipolar Disorder.” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/bipolar-disorder/guide/bipolar-disorder-lithium#

1 comment on “The Science Behind Bipolar Disorder

  1. Excellent writing !


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