Scientists say new brain imaging methods that measure blood flow could help diagnose bipolar disorder in its early stages, as well as differentiate it from depression, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh analyzed 44 females for the study. Of these, 18 had bipolar-I disorder, 18 had unipolar depression and 18 served as a control group, with no form of mood disorder or depression.
The researchers carefully matched the women for demographic and clinical variables and the women were all experiencing an episode of depression throughout the study assessment.
Using a new imaging method called "Arterial Spin Labeling," the researchers were able to measure the participants' blood flow in order to monitor the brain regions linked to depression.
This new imaging method revealed an 81% accuracy in determining which women suffered from bipolar and which women had unipolar depression.
Another new method was also used, called "Pattern Recognition Analysis," which enables the researchers to monitor brain differences specific to each individual.
Dr. Jorge Almeida, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, says:
"Earlier and more accurate diagnoses can make an enormous difference for patients and their families, and may even save lives.
This is a very promising finding that highlights the usefulness of neuroimaging to help identify biological markers associated with different mental health conditions."
Research has shown that bipolar disorder has higher prevalence in the US than any other country, with 4% prevalence compared with the worldwide average of 2%.
The disorder is not easy to diagnose, as symptoms such as mood changes and lack of energy and activity levels can frequently be diagnosed as other problems. The researchers add that a fifth of people with bipolar disorder are incorrectly diagnosed when first assessed by a physician - an accurate diagnosis can take up to 10 years.
"These results also suggest that we may one day be able to predict future bipolar behavior in younger adults who haven't shown any symptoms, allowing for earlier and more accurate treatment," adds Dr. Almeida.
The researchers say that these two new technologies will now be used to conduct research in larger samples and in a multi-center study.