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The Most Fascinating Medical Condition

Posted on September 21, 2006

Husseini K. Manji (bio) explains why he has focused on bipolar research.

 

I think that bipolar disorder is probably the most fascinating medical condition there is. You know, to me it's very difficult to think of another illness where the same individual at different points in the illness can appear so dramatically distinct where, when someone is a bipolar individual in a depressed state, there is the depressed mood, often suicidal ideation.

Many bipolar patients are slowed down movement-wise almost to the point of looking like they have Parkinson's disease. Energy is down, etc., and yet the same individual, when they're in a manic state, their thoughts are going a mile a minute, they're full of energy. They're not sleeping. They're not needing sleep, and as I mentioned, it's difficult to envision one illness that can present so distinctly dissimilar.

That was one of the first reasons that got me excited about bipolar disorder, that it couldn't be a disorder of just, you know, too little of one neurotransmitter or too much of another. There was much more complexity, probably inside cells, that was involved with bipolar disorder.

Another big area was that the treatments we tend to use, lithium and valproate, are these molecules that, in the case of lithium, looks like table salt, and yet it has this profound beneficial effect in treating this very complex disorder. So to try and understand how something that looks like table salt can have such a beneficial effect was another thing that drew me towards trying to figure out the illness.

And then, I think, two more areas. One is the sort of real appreciation that I think society as we know it has been markedly shaped by bipolar illness, and what I mean by that is that there's a lot of data to suggest that when the bipolar illness, the manic episodes, aren't that severe that they're incapacitating and get individuals into jail, etc., that there's a drive.

There's an energy. There's a charismatic nature that individuals have that probably throughout history have really been, you know, powerful leaders that have shaped society, etc., and it's intriguing that an illness or a form of the illness could have shaped society so much.

And then the last part, I'd say, is the flip side of that, is that I think there's an under appreciation about how bad it is for many individuals and that sometimes the notion that it's an illness that artists and creative folks have tends to overly romanticize it where, in fact, today the data is suggesting that many, many, many patients with bipolar illness are severely disabled.

It might be an illness that has the highest suicide rate of all. Many individuals are locked up in jails because of an under appreciation, and so I think it's an illness where one can really do a lot of good if we could understand what's going on and come up with better treatments, and so I think it's an illness that really warrants extensive study.

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Excerpted from an interview with researcher at the 2006 Career Development Institute for Bipolar Disorder in Boca Raton, FL.

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