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Depression and bipolar disorder are two mental health diagnoses that carry a strong genetic influence. While scientists do not fully understand the mix between genetic and other factors in the development of the two disorders, research has shown that individuals who have a family member with one of those two disorders has an increased likelihood of developing the disorder as well.

As with all mental health issues, the treatment of depression and bipolar disorder is dependent on the individual seeking help. Many who suffer from mental health problems neglect to seek treatment because they fear the stigma that is sometimes associated with the disorder or because of financial concerns, among other reasons.

Therefore, the identification of physical signs that might provide clues to the development of a mental health disorder like bipolar disorder or depression could help in the early detection of the problem. Early detection can provide relief and improve the overall quality of life for the individual who suffers from a mental disorder.

In a recent study, Heather C. Whalley of the Division of Psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh evaluated the brain scans of a group of individuals who were high risk for bipolar disorder and compared them with a group of controls who had no increased risk for bipolar.

The study included 98 participants who each had a family member diagnosed with bipolar disorder and 58 control participants.

The researchers also evaluated the participants for symptoms of bipolar disorder and depression and found that none of the participants exhibited symptoms of either disorder. However, 20 of the high-risk participants exhibited a higher level of insula cortex activation when compared with both the other high risk participants and the control group.

Two years later, Whalley conducted a follow-up session with the participants. The analysis showed that the same 20 high-risk participants who had an increased insula cortex activation now exhibited the full criteria necessary for a diagnosis of depression.

The area of the brain that showed distinct differences between the high risk group and the controls, the insula, is associated with reaction inhibition, the regulation of emotions and subjective emotional response.

The authors noted that one measurable difference in the results showed that among the 20 high-risk participants who eventually developed depression, the insula remained active as the participants engaged in tasks as a part of the study. In the other participants, there was a gradual disengagement as the tasks became more difficult.

The findings indicate that even if symptoms are not detectable, neurological signs may be present of a mental disorder. None of the participants who were high-risk developed bipolar disorder during the study’s research period, but depression often occurs before the onset of bipolar disorder.

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