Bipolar disorder and clinical depression can look very similar, even to mental health experts. Both frequently involve patients experiencing periods of despair and extreme sadness. But the treatments are different; antidepressants are not effective for bipolar disorder, which also typically causes periods of mania in patients.
Thus, doctors need a reliable way to distinguish between these mental illnesses. A new study suggests that one way of looking at patients' brains may be the answer.
Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the brains of 113 subjects, some of whom had depression, some of whom had bipolar disorder and some of whom had neither. The scientists showed the subjects photographs depicting different emotions. The subjects were told to either experience the images passively or attempt to regulate their emotions, such as by reminding themselves that it was only a photograph.
The participants then rated how strongly each picture made them feel. Researchers subtracted the ratings of the passively viewed pictures from the actively emotionally distanced pictures to score each volunteer's ability to regulate their emotions.
The study found that among people not feeling depressed, those with bipolar disorder were much worse at regulating happiness and sadness than those with depression. Those with bipolar experiencing depression outpaced patients with depression in regulating happiness, and both were about equal in regulating sadness when depressed.
These findings suggest differences in brain activity, which could lead to better diagnoses in the future.
Besides wrecking havoc with one's emotions, conditions like bipolar disorder and clinical depression can make continuing to work impossible. This is why people with these illnesses may qualify for Social Security Disability benefits.