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Bipolar Disorder Health Center

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Bipolar Youths May Misread Faces

Bipolar Youths Are More Likely to See Hostility in Neutral Faces
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 30, 2006 -- Youths with bipolar disorderbipolar disorder may see hostility in faces that look blank to other people, new research shows.

Bipolar disorder used to be called manic-depressive illness. It features extreme mood changes that swing from a restless, and even reckless, euphoria or "high" (mania) to depressiondepression. During either phase, the illness can be very dangerous; treatment can help manage the condition.

A new study shows that bipolar youths are more likely than others to see hostility in and fear neutral faces.

The study comes from Brendan Rich, PhD, and colleagues, who work at the National Institute of Mental HealthMental Health's mood and anxiety program. Their study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Viewing Faces

The study included 22 bipolar youths aged 9-17 years (average age: 14) and 21 youths without bipolar disorder.

Each participant viewed 32 images of faces. Meanwhile, their brains were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The images included eight happy faces, eight angry faces, eight fearful faces, and eight neutral faces. Participants answered three questions about each face:

  • How hostile is the face?
  • How afraid are you of the face?
  • How wide is the nose on the face?

The researchers focused on the neutral faces. They found no sign that bipolar disorder affected how participants rated nose width. But emotions were a different story.

Rating Hostility

Compared with those without bipolar disorder, bipolar youths gave higher hostility ratings to the neutral faces and reported being more fearful of those faces, the study shows.

While viewing the neutral faces, bipolar youths' fMRI brain scans showed more activity in the left amygdala, a brain area related to fear, compared with the brain scans of nonbipolar participants.

Which came first: bipolar disorder or seeing hostility in neutral faces? The study doesn't answer that question. It also doesn't show whether bipolar participants felt more irritable or aggressive after viewing the neutral faces.

Most bipolar participants were taking psychiatric prescriptions to control their condition. So the researchers don't know if the results would differ for unmedicated patients.

Rich and colleagues saw no differences in the results for bipolar youths who were manic or depressed during the study. A larger study might add more information on the topic, the researchers note.

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