New hope for early detection and treatment of bipolar disorder in young people: study

New hope for early detection and treatment of bipolar disorder in young people: study

17 October 2023

Orygen researchers have found that a new method used to identify young people at risk of bipolar disorder (BD) may be able to help detect who will develop the disorder several years before onset.

The finding could lead the way to improving the lives of young people with BD, a condition that can cause episodic changes in a person’s mood, energy and thinking, through early intervention and targeted support and treatments.

Researchers found that a significant proportion (28.6 per cent) of participants who met the threshold of the Bipolar At-Risk (BAR) criteria at the outset of the study, went on to develop BD over 10 to 13 years.

In contrast, none of the participants in the comparison group – comprised of participants who did not meet these criteria – developed BD.

The BAR criteria is based on displaying a combination of factors, including:

  • having some symptoms of mania, but not enough to meet the full criteria for a manic episode;
  • having mild mood swings that last for several months;
  • having some symptoms of depression, but not enough to meet the full criteria for a depressive episode; and
  • a family history of bipolar disorder.

The study focused on a group of young people aged 15 to 25 years who sought support for various mental health concerns from a tertiary youth mental health service in Melbourne. The group included young people with issues related to mood disorder, personality disorder and substance use.

Dr Aswin Ratheesh, Clinical Research Fellow at Orygen and lead author of the study, said to improve the wellbeing of people at risk of BD, which affects two to three percent of the world's population, it's important to predict who might develop the condition in order to prevent it.

“But when it comes to people seeking help in clinical settings, until now, there have not been many established criteria or methods to predict their risk, particularly in the long term,” he said.

“This is crucial because research has shown the transition to BD can take many years (1), potentially offering a broader timeframe for preventive actions.”

Dr Ratheesh said mental health professionals could employ the BAR criteria to identify individuals at risk of developing BD, especially if they could be offered low-risk supports. Further research is necessary to understand the best interventions to prevent the condition from advancing.

“If we are to significantly improve outcomes for young people developing BD, we need to conduct clinical trials of preventive treatments and supports, ensuring that harms are limited."

Read the full study here.

1. Angst J, Sellaro R, Stassen HH, Gamma A.  Diagnostic conversion from depression to bipolar disorders: results of a long-term prospective study of hospital admissions.  J Affect Disord. 2005;84(2-3):149-157.