Bipolar - The Field Has Grown Up

John McManamy Health Guide
  • I’ve been attending a bipolar conference in Pittsburgh, which means I haven’t been tending to my usual business here at BipolarConnect. These shareposts typically stem from issues that you bring up in various forums here, but today will be an exception.

    I just wrapped up three days at the Eighth International Bipolar Conference, held every two years, featuring the top experts in the field. This year, some 850 people from 47 countries were on hand. As well as attending the seminars, the conference offered ample opportunity to listen at close range to experts across an overlapping spectrum of disciplines, including molecular biology, psychiatric genetics, neuro-imaging, psychopharmacology, diagnostics, sleep disorders, pediatrics, and talking therapy.

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    This year, for the first time, the brain scientists were the stars of the show. Eight years ago, at my first conference in 2001, psychopharmacology ruled the roost, but the handwriting was already on the wall. Breakthrough advances in imaging and gene arrays and other technologies for the first time were allowing scientists to, in effect, take a look under the hood.

    Back then, on a cellular level, researchers were beginning to come up with some interesting ideas on what was going on when a neuron was in crisis. Imaging studies were underway looking to identify specific brain pathways and map them to certain types of behavior. And geneticists for the first time had a completed human genome directory to work with.

    By 2002, the brain science findings were coming in thick and fast, but mainly in other fields, with schizophrenia leading the way. At the end of 2003, Science Magazine cited advances in psychiatric brain research as the second leading scientific breakthrough of the year (the origin of the universe came in first), but the work was coming out of the labs of scientists specializing in other illnesses.

    The 2003 Bipolar Conference gave its research award to molecular biologist Husseini Manji, then of the NIMH, but psychopharmacology was still center stage. By the time I attended the conference in 2005, my email newsletter was featuring a lot more brain science reporting than meds and other topics, and the Conference was beginning to reflect this, as well. Dr Manji now had a featured spot on the program, and was featured again in 2007 along with neuroimaging specialist Mary Phillips of the University of Pittsburgh.

    This year, Drs Manji and Phillips were again on display, along with various panels of brain scientists. Thomas Insel, head of the NIMH, who has been a featured speaker at the conference since 2003, this year felt emboldened enough to say in effect that bipolar was finally starting to catch up to other fields. I recall talking to him back in 2003, when he personally related to me how undeveloped the bipolar field was compared to schizophrenia. I’m sure the term backward was on his mind.

    A couple of months ago, for the first time, I attended an international schizophrenia conference. The brain researchers literally owned the conference. Medications were a seeming irrelevancy and even a distraction. I had asked a number of attendees about this. They reported that their conferences looked a lot different ten years ago, but probably not five or six years ago.

  • I indicated to them that the Bipolar Conference I would be attending would not have the same emphasis on brain science.

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    Allow me to correct that false impression right now. Dr Manji and others took us inside the neuron. Dr Phillips and others showed us how identifiable roadblocks along precisely mapped brain pathways interfere with our ability to respond rationally in response to specific events. And Nick Craddock of Cardiff University actually had a gene he could show us.

    Okay, none of this is going to translate into anything you can use right now, but the starting point in our recovery begins with self-knowledge and that includes insight into our illness. We don’t need to know the fine points of genes and neurons, but it will help us tremendously if we have a basic knowledge of what is going on inside our brains. For me, this knowledge has translated into a number of key recovery techniques I employ. Essentially, modern brain science is validating ancient recovery techniques.

    Trust me, brain science has informed me in my conversations with you over the years, even on issues that supposedly have nothing to do with brain science. To me, this isn't just esoteric stuff that only geeks are interested in. This is vital information we can be applying right now to our own recovery.


    Next week: Back to issues that you bring to the table.

Published On: June 28, 2009