According to a leading researcher at the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ International Congress, a single magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan may soon help hundreds of thousands of people who have bipolar disorder get a faster and more accurate – and possibly life-saving – diagnosis.

Professor Mary Phillips, professor of psychiatry and director of the Clinical and Translational Affective Neuroscience Program at the University of Pittsburgh, told the Congress that missed and delayed diagnosis is one of the major problems in dealing with bipolar disorder.

She said, “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.” 

Difficulty in telling the difference between unipolar (normal) depression and bipolar disorder is a major problem for health care providers. 

Professor Phillips stated, “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.”

Yet research done at the University of Pittsburgh shows that bipolar disorder may be more accurately diagnosed – in the near future – with a combination of a Functional MRI (which scans the brain’s ‘software’ or neural pathways), as well as a DTI, or Diffusion Tension Imaging (which scans the brain’s white matter). 

Professor Philips told the Congress that scans of people's brains who have depression or bipolar disorder show ‘functionally coupled’ activity in two regions of the brain, the amygdala (which processes emotions), and the pre-frontal cortex (which is important for emotional regulation).   

This study involved MRI scans comparing brain function in two separate groups of people – one group with unipolar depression, and the other group with bipolar disorder. It revealed two types of depression which appear to be easily distinguished “by a very different and distinct pattern of brain activity.”

Professor Philips said: “If there’s a plan to do just one MRI in the future to try to decide whether someone has bipolar or depression, I’d suggest focusing the right pre-frontal cortex. If there is any abnormality in functioning between the right and pre-frontal cortex and right amygdala, the chances are that the person has bipolar.” 

Professor Phillips suggested that the scans might also be used at some point to predict a future onset of bipolar disorder in young people who are not yet affected by the disorder.