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Research Summary: Study Finds Strong Link Between Childhood Adversity and Bipolar Disorder Diagnosis

Veronica Grosse

The following is a summary of the research articleStudy finds strong link between childhood adversity and bipolar disorder diagnosis

What is the topic? 

This study looks into the connection between childhood adversity and bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a mental illness where patients experience extreme manic and depressive states. These states interfere with their everyday lives, and even increase risk for suicide. Childhood adversity can be classified as feelings of, or being, neglected, abused, death of a parent, or being bullied, in one’s childhood.

Many studies on bipolar in the past have focused on genetics and biology and their relation to the disorder, but the researchers wanted to test the famous ‘nature vs. nurture’. Many professionals believe both are contributing to health, and even certain conditions. With many studies linking genetic and biological brain evidence to mental illness, the researchers felt the environmental aspect was under researched. That being said, the researchers wanted to see how environmental factors during childhood had an effect on those adult patients with bipolar disorder.

What was the hypothesis?

Given a correlation in a previous study between childhood adversity and schizophrenia, the researchers assumed they would see a correlation between bipolar disorder and childhood adversity as well.

What did the researchers hope to learn? 

The researchers wanted to examine social factors in childhood that could account for one being at a higher likelihood of developing bipolar disorder as adults.

How was the study conducted?

The researchers accessed 19 studies out of hundreds of studies between the years 1980 and 2014 through data pooling. This gave them access to millions of assessments, records of patients, and resources at patients with the disease (and the factors in the patients’ lives). Conducting this study in this way (meta-analysis approach) gave them access to a very large data pool, based off of studies that have already been conducted. This allowed them to have millions of records, versus hundreds if they were to conduct a new study for this research. It was very beneficial to the research, as they had access to a larger sample size. This creates much more accuracy when making correlation claims. Another strong point to this approach was allowing them to examine data from over 30 years of research.

What did the researchers find?

Patients with bipolar disorder are over twice as likely to have suffered from childhood adversity as those who did not. This link is very strong. The largest childhood adversity factor was emotional abuse. Adults with bipolar were four times more likely to have had emotional abuse in childhood. Interestingly, the loss of a parent during childhood is the only adversity factor that did not raise the risk for developing bipolar as an adult.

What were the limitations of the study?

It is important to note that there are also many biological factors at play. This article is not to say that everyone who has bipolar had a rough childhood. This article is just examining a common link between those with bipolar and childhood adversity, but it is definitely not the ‘cause’.

What do the results mean for you?

These results are very important to the adult population with bipolar disorder. It may have implications on treatment methods, and the way one is receiving treatment. When developing plans with your doctor, if you feel you have had childhood adversity, it is very important to incorporate those events into therapy sessions. Informing your doctor(s) about this aspect contributing to your disease (if it applies to you) can benefit treatment in many ways.

 

 

Comments

Thanks for the excellent advice, it really is useful.

This is a classic example of proving correlation not causation. It could be argued that bipolar disorder is genetic, and that individuals who suffer from bipolar are more likely to give their children an adverse childhood (particularly if they are not taking proper steps to cope with the illness in a healthy way). The children then both develop bipolar and fit the criteria of having had an adverse childhood, but the underlying cause is a passing of genetic information.

Not saying there isn’t a potential for the hypothesis to be correct, but you approached the research from the wrong angle. You should have studied the percent of 1) individuals with a family history of bipolar disorder (children of individuals with bipolar) who *did* report an adverse childhood and then 1a) went on to develop bipolar disorder themselves vs 1b) did not develop it, compared to 2) the percentage of individuals who had a family history of bipolar disorder and reported *not* having an adverse childhood and then 2a) went on to develop the disorder vs 2b) did not develop the disorder.

Then analyze a difference in 1a and 1b’s numbers vs 2a and 2b. If they are very similar, that would suggest that children of individuals with bipolar disorder have equal likelihood of developing the disorder whether there is or is not childhood adversity. If there is a strong delta, you have a strong case that adversity increases likelihood.

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