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Bipolar disorder (BD) is a familial psychiatric disorder associated with frontotemporal and subcortical brain abnormalities. It is unclear whether such abnormalities are present in relatives without BD, and little is known about structural brain trajectories in those at risk.
Neuroimaging was conducted at baseline and at 2-year follow-up interval in 90 high-risk individuals with a first-degree BD relative (HR), and 56 participants with no family history of mental illness who could have non-BD diagnoses. All 146 subjects were aged 12–30 years at baseline. We examined longitudinal change in gray and white matter volume, cortical thickness, and surface area in the frontotemporal cortex and subcortical regions.
Compared to controls, HR participants showed accelerated cortical thinning and volume reduction in right lateralised frontal regions, including the inferior frontal gyrus, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, frontal pole and rostral middle frontal gyrus. Independent of time, the HR group had greater cortical thickness in the left caudal anterior cingulate cortex, larger volume in the right medial orbitofrontal cortex and greater area of right accumbens, compared to controls. This pattern was evident even in those without the new onset of psychopathology during the inter-scan interval.
This study suggests that differences previously observed in BD are developing prior to the onset of the disorder. The pattern of pathological acceleration of cortical thinning is likely consistent with a disturbance of molecular mechanisms responsible for normal cortical thinning. We also demonstrate that neuroanatomical differences in HR individuals may be progressive in some regions and stable in others.
White matter (WM) impairments have been reported in patients with bipolar disorder (BD) and those at high familial risk of developing BD. However, the distribution of these impairments has not been well characterized. Few studies have examined WM integrity in young people early in the course of illness and in individuals at familial risk who have not yet passed the peak age of onset.
WM integrity was examined in 63 BD subjects, 150 high-risk (HR) individuals and 111 participants with no family history of mental illness (CON). All subjects were aged 12 to 30 years.
This young BD group had significantly lower fractional anisotropy within the genu of the corpus callosum (CC) compared with the CON and HR groups. Moreover, the abnormality in the genu of the CC was also present in HR participants with recurrent major depressive disorder (MDD) (n = 16) compared with CON participants.
Our findings provide important validation of interhemispheric abnormalities in BD patients. The novel finding in HR subjects with recurrent MDD – a group at particular risk of future hypo/manic episodes – suggests that this may potentially represent a trait marker for BD, though this will need to be confirmed in longitudinal follow-up studies.
Establishing an evidence-based diagnostic system informed by the biological (dys)function of the nervous system is a major priority in psychiatry. This objective, however, is often challenged by difficulties in identifying homogeneous clinical populations. Melancholia, a biological and endogenous subtype for major depressive disorder, presents a canonical test case in the search of biological nosology.
We employed a unique combination of naturalistic functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) paradigms – resting state and free viewing of emotionally salient films – to search for neurobiological signatures of depression subtypes. fMRI data were acquired from 57 participants; 17 patients with melancholia, 17 patients with (non-melancholic) major depression and 23 matched healthy controls.
Patients with melancholia showed a prominent loss of functional connectivity in hub regions [including ventral medial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and superior temporal gyrus] during natural viewing, and in the posterior cingulate cortex while at rest. Of note, the default mode network showed diminished reactivity to external stimuli in melancholia, which correlated with the severity of anhedonia. Intriguingly, the subgenual ACC, a potential target for treating depression with deep brain stimulation (DBS), showed divergent changes between the two depression subtypes, with increased connectivity in the non-melancholic and decreased connectivity in the melancholic subsets.
These findings reveal neurobiological changes specific to depression subtypes during ecologically valid behavioural conditions, underscoring the critical need to respect differing neurobiological processes underpinning depressive subtypes.