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 Marcia Purse

Could an MRI Diagnose Bipolar Disorder?

By June 3, 2013

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Can an MRI Diagnose Bipolar Disorder?It's possible - and with today's technology. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have found that there is a clear difference between brain activity in patients who have unipolar depression from those who have bipolar disorder.

Right now it can be difficult to diagnose bipolar disorder. And since bipolar disorder is so often misdiagnosed as clinical depression at first, and it can take months or years for the correct diagnosis to be made, a test like this could make an enormous difference to people haven't been diagnosed correctly - even saving lives.

All this is according to Professor Mary Phillips, professor of psychiatry and director of the Clinical and Translational Affective Neuroscience Program at the University of Pittsburgh, who spoke at the Royal College of Psychiatrists' International Congress in Edinburgh last week. She told the Congress, "Only one in five sufferers are correctly diagnosed at first presentation to a doctor and it can take up to ten years before suffers receive a correct diagnosis."

Professor Phillips went on to say, "The problem is that sufferers [of bipolar disorder] frequently fail to tell their doctors about hypomanic phases because they can be experienced as quite pleasant or judged not to be abnormal at all."

Professor Phillips also raised the possibility that in the future such tests could be used to predict future bipolar disorder in young people who haven't shown any symptoms. For those who are at risk of developing BP due to family history, this could be of enormous benefit by helping them to get early and accurate treatment.

Since the technology is already available to perform the necessary testing, I expect one big stumbling block, at least in the United States, will be the insurance industry. MRIs are not inexpensive, and getting insurance companies to approve them to help diagnose a mental illness could be mighty tough. I hope I'm wrong, because this a tantalizing look into the future that could be a major breakthrough.

Source: Royal College of Psychiatrists

Image: Áron Balogh / Stock.Xchng

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June 29, 2010 at 9:25 am
(1) Trish says:

It sounds great on the one hand. But, on the other, the level of radiation from one scan is very high. I would be troubled if the technology were used on children or teens. Also, what would the scans look like for people like me. Who have not only Bipolar, but additional issues. Would our scans be convoluted? Then, not as helpful with finding the right medication? Just thoughts.

February 10, 2011 at 5:55 pm
(2) Jessica says:

MRI does not use radiation. It uses radio waves.

June 17, 2011 at 3:55 pm
(3) Pri says:

MRI is not at all harmful. It uses strong magnetic field, that’s it. You can get as many MRI as you want in your lifetime.

June 29, 2010 at 10:06 am
(4) Krystal says:

Trish, I would much more prefer the brain scan w/high radiation level that will eventually subside than NOT knowing what my diagnosis should be. Believe me, Ive gone thru hell until I was diagnosed by my family Dr. who was also bipolar. I was 47 years old! Ive been thru so much therapy in my life & no one recognized I had any type of disorder!! I am so grateful for my diagnosis & meds. How horrible it must have been for people who had any kind of mental disorder years b4 the psychiatric community existed. Ive thought of that so many times. Why people will stop taking their meds I just dont understand. AND, for the first time in 12 years Ive found a psychiatrist in SW Oklahoma that is the best Ive ever ever had. He is very astute in psychiatric pharmacology. In 6 months he got my meds straight & I have been blessed to be normal for 18 months now. That is a record! It took 10 1/2 years to get the right Dr. For all fellow bipolar sufferers; dont give up! If in 6-9 months your Dr. cant get your meds level, leave that Dr. & go to another. I mean this. There are mostly poor psychiatrists out there just pulling straws hoping they will get the correct med combination. You dont have to put up w/it. GO TO ANOTHER PSYCHIATRIST. Sincerely, Krystal

June 29, 2010 at 3:30 pm
(5) Michael says:


You are confusing MRI with radiation based imaging. MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is NOT a source of Ionizing radiation unlike a CT scan, X-ray, or fluoroscopy. It does NOT use radioactive materials so the risks from radiation are for all intents and purposes is virtually non-existent.

July 1, 2010 at 2:06 pm
(6) vivi says:

hi Krystal,
i was wondering when you said that “you were blessed to be normal for 18 months”.
what do you mean by “normal” here? are you trying to say that you are free of BP symptons and free of medication?
i would be glad to hear about your explanation. thanks and gbu

August 4, 2010 at 12:18 am
(7) Starwanderer says:

This would be great for BP patients with paranoid symptoms I am thinking of my mother who has been saying since before I was in 7th grade that people (different ones at different times) are trying to make her think she is crazy so that they can commit her and take her money. She is suspicious of all persons and especially any doctor let alone any mental health professional.

April 8, 2011 at 6:02 pm
(8) Michael John Lake says:

A problem is assuming that the symptoms, like shown in the MRI image, would only have one cause. I had bipolar disorder symptoms for years. Then after becoming paralyzed by a spinal cord tumor I started having increased confusion and fatigue which grew worse until I thought I was dieing. Doctors misdiagnosed my symptoms as Schizoaffective disorder but I got worse with Risperidone instead of better. Turns out I was not absorbing enough vitamin B12, likely because I had digestive problems after being paralyzed.

With b12 supplements my confusion and fatigue has mostly gone away. Then my bipolar disorder symptoms by themselves came back requiring more medication adjustments to cope better.

Unfortunately I then had developed nerve pain in my legs which is being treated with Gabapentin that started causing similar drunken tired feeling plus my eyesight to become fuzzy. The Gabapentin on the positive side seems to help with bipolar symptoms though studies debate if it helps most people.

One thing that is stupid about medical studies is that we all have different genes, different diets, different support systems, and may take extra medications for other medical problems like I do for being paralyzed. Do doctors study how medications for things like bipolar disorder effect someone who also lacks important vitamins like B12? The so called common person is how diagnosis and medications are rated.

I was never a common person. I was happy go lucky trying to make the most of my life until I was confronted with the greedy, selfish, and dishonest freeloaders of society who I discovered can lie and cheat their way into positions of power pretending to care about everyone. If you are diagnosed with any mental health problem then it also makes you a target by criminals. Doctors do not want to admit how patients can become victims.

April 9, 2013 at 1:00 pm
(9) Doug says:

Can an MRI distinguish more types of BP rather than just type 1 or type 2, if 10 or 20 types of bipolar could be identified, then treatment might be more successful by saying you are BP 17 and this medication works 95% of the time, why not MRI all Bipolar patients to get a baseline in Mania and Depression, that should be a research proposal and grant from National Institutes of Health

June 4, 2013 at 1:26 pm
(10) Doug says:

Something odd is going on here. The article is tagged as 2013 and the comments are tagged as 2010 and 2011. Is this old news or a recent development ?

June 4, 2013 at 1:35 pm
(11) Marcia Purse / Bipolar Disorder Guide says:

The information was originally released in 2010. I felt it was worth bringing it to my readers’ attention, since many will not have seen it before.

June 4, 2013 at 2:01 pm
(12) Nancy Reid says:

I think this is an interesting site and wonder if anyone has gotten treatment through CNSResponse.com It does involve getting a brain scan!

June 4, 2013 at 6:30 pm
(13) Thatguy says:

So, how much does it cost? wonder how I’d feel if it said I wasn’t bipolar. Relieved or more confused…

June 4, 2013 at 7:43 pm
(14) Vicki says:

Why do they only mention hypomania for Bipolar I and not address mania of Bipolar II. If insurance companies had any brains they could see that if diagnosed properly and soon would save them money a lot of money overall, they would stop being stupid.

June 10, 2013 at 3:21 pm
(15) Marcia Purse / Bipolar Disorder Guide says:

Vicky, actually people with Bipolar I can experience both mania and hypomania. People with Bipolar II do not have mania, only hypomania.

November 19, 2013 at 5:19 pm
(16) Kathy says:

The misdiagnosis described by the professor is very accurate. I was treated for unipolar depression for the better part of 20 years. If only I had known then how good I could feel.

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