Can Bipolar Disorder Show Up in a Brain Scan?

doctor looking at brain scans

Gorodenkoff / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Bipolar disorder is a serious mood disorder that impacts at least 4.4% of Americans. This mental condition features pronounced bouts of depression and mania. While it is challenging to live with, the proper treatment protocol can support those with this diagnosis and help them achieve a great quality of life.

Bipolar disorder is typically diagnosed via a mental health evaluation that mental health professionals administer. However, you might wonder if a brain scan will lead to a diagnosis. With that said, can bipolar disorder be detected in a brain scan? In short, no. But brain scans can tell us more about how bipolar disorder has affected someone's brain. Read ahead to learn more.

Can Bipolar Disorder Show Up in a Brain Scan?

While brain scans aren’t used to diagnose bipolar disorder, they are used to learn more about how this condition impacts the brain and body.

Grey Matter Can Be Detected in a Brain Scan

Those who experience bipolar disorder have a decreased amount of grey matter in their brain. Grey matter is the exterior layer of brain tissue that constitutes the cerebral cortex.

Those with bipolar disorder have decreased grey matter in their brain, which is detectable on a brain scan.

Brain Scans Can Reveal Amygdala Activity

Brain scans can also help us learn how bipolar disorder differs from other mood disorders, like major depression.

A study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging, it was discovered that those living with bipolar disorder had decreased left amygdala activation compared to those living with major depressive disorder.

These studies show us that brain scans can be very helpful in developing research on how bipolar disorder impacts the brain. However, this being said, research is still growing, and brain scans are not a suitable option for diagnosis for bipolar disorder at this time.

Bipolar Disorder Treatment

Treatment for bipolar disorder varies based on the individual, but general treatment recommendations include medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes.

Medication Options

Medication options vary. Lithium is a mood stabilizer that's commonly prescribed. However, it isn’t the only one.

Anticonvulsants are also often prescribed as off-label mood stabilizers. In some circumstances, antipsychotics may also be offered.

Psychotherapy

In addition, professionals recommend that psychotherapy be used in conjunction with medication. Psychotherapy can help individuals create lasting change in their life, from learning more about their triggers to tracking their moods. It can also be crucial in developing coping tools and navigating relationships.

Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle changes are also very important. These changes may include going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, eating well, exercising regularly, and minimizing drug and alcohol consumption.

Summary

While brain scans cannot be used to diagnose bipolar disorder, they can show grey matter and amygdala activity. This information can help doctors understand how bipolar disorder affects the brain and how brain activity in those with bipolar disorder compares to those of others with a different mental health condition.

A Word From Verywell 

There is much we have yet to learn about bipolar disorder, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. Between learning more about this condition, finding the right treatment for you, and seeking out support, it is possible to lead a happy and healthy life.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Bipolar disorder statistics.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Bipolar disorder.

  3. Mercadante AA, Tadi P. Neuroanatomy, gray matter. Treasure Island, FL. StatPearls Publishing; 2022.

  4. Hibar DP, Westlye LT, Doan NT, et al. Cortical abnormalities in bipolar disorder: an MRI analysis of 6503 individuals from the ENIGMA Bipolar Disorder Working Group. Mol Psychiatry. 2018;23(4):932-942. doi:10.1038/mp.2017.73

  5. Korgaonkar MS, Erlinger M, Breukelaar IA, et al. Amygdala activation and connectivity to emotional processing distinguishes asymptomatic patients with bipolar disorders and unipolar depression. Biol. Psychiatry Cogn. Neurosci. Neuroimaging.. 2019;4(4):361-370. doi:10.1016/j.bpsc.2018.08.012

  6. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Bipolar disorder.

By Julia Childs Heyl
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.