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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
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Bipolar kids see aggression when it isn't there

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: May 30th 2006

A research annoucement today out of the NIMH (the National Institute of Mental Health) has apparently identified an important way that children with bipolar disorder and children without any disorders differ: Bipolar children seem to be more ready to read hostile intent and anger into other people's faces than are normal children. 22 bipolar kids and 21 "healthy" kids were asked to rate different characteristics of photographs of people's faces while under an fMRI machine - the new sort of brain scanner capable of indicating which areas of a person's brain become activated as they do things like look at pictures). As a group, the bipolar children rated the faces they saw as hostile and angry, where the "healthy" children read no particular emotional expression into the faces. So far as I can tell, the faces were designed to be neutral with regard to emotional expression. While in the midst of judging the faces to be hostile, bipolar children's brains apparently showed a characteristic pattern of activation in particular "emotion" brain centers; notably the amygdala and left prefrontal cortex. These brain regions were quiet for the healthy kids who saw the same pictures and failed to discern any particular emotion.

This is a small sample to be sure and it is difficult to say that generalizations are warrented. However, keeping that in mind, there is an interesting implication here I think. Bipolar kids may have an inborn vulnerability for having a "hair-trigger" for determining other's aggression. They may be so ready to see hostility that they read it in when it is not objectively present. If this is the case, we ought to be able to confirm it easily enough. Bipolar children ought to be observably picking fights with other kids at a higher rate than other kids, or engaging in bullying behavior, or to be fearful at a higher rate than other kids, for instance.

I'm left wondering if there is any possible connection between this finding (of a tendancy for bipolar kids to see threats where they dont' exist) and a tendancy towards paranoia, particularly during a manic state (when true psychosis is possible and even likely). Paranoia, of course, is the name given to the behavior a patient displays when he or she comes to believe that others (sometimes specific others and sometimes a generalized "other") are out to get them. It is normally associated with paranoid schizophrenia, but a very severe mania can also result in paranoid symptoms. This would be a really interesting finding if it resulted in our learning more about how paranoid states are set up or created by underlying biological brain conditions.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Presently, he is an Oakland Psychologist (Lic#PSY25695) in private practice offering evidence-based acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and addressing a range of life problems. Contact Dr. Dombeck by calling 510-900-5123, send Dr. Dombeck email or visit Dr. Dombeck's practice website for more information.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Parent abuse leads to breaking point! - - Apr 2nd 2010

My 26 year old son moved home...diagnosis bipolar...quite his job and is now is totally dependent on his parents for everything. He refuses to go back to treatment and is physically abusing his father (spitting in face, claims he is the antichrist). The wife admonishes the father for causing the behavior, so abuse cycle is reinforced and becoming worse each time. The option of calling the police is probably the next move, but you hate to get them involved! What a lack of viable options!

This is a living hell on earth!

At any rate sir... - CppD - Mar 11th 2008

You are actually too old to get into the airforce.

Ur story is of interest to me though, because of some common issues parallel to other aggressive individuals.

One question--is your family happy with you, especially if you have violent outbursts??

They are just studying this now? - Jon - Sep 26th 2006
I lived a violent childhood and because of this have become very accute to others agression. But sometimes it is heard to tell the difference between their aggression and my own. I used to jump other kids in the hallways as a child becuse I knew they were comeing after me first, "simply by the way they looked at me." As I grew older I had come to realize that it was in my head. But even today at 36yo, I still have this issue. I was resently in a heated discussion with my ex-wife, when my daughter(16) handed me some pamphletes on the airforce. I immediately exploded about her attitude and her telling me to go away and die in Iraq. None of this was apperanty true, she simply had heard of me trying to join the airfoce some years ago, and had thaught of me and braught the papers back to look at them herself.

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