Research could help bipolar patients control mood swings

Published 25 May 2011

eegResearch at the University of New England could help people suffering from bipolar disorder to control the debilitating mood swings associated with the illness.

Alex Kary, who is studying for a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology at UNE, believes that people with bipolar disorder could learn to dampen the brain activity that causes their massive mood swings by mentally manipulating a visual representation of that brain activity – as it’s actually occurring – on a computer screen.

People with epilepsy have benefited from this kind of “neurofeedback” technique, and it has also been used successfully in the treatment of problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and alcohol abuse in adults. Mr Kary pointed out that epilepsy and bipolar disorder both involved periodic episodes triggered by instability in the brain, and that they could often be treated with the same medication. “We’re arguing that the two conditions could involve similar brain processes,” he said, “and that the neurofeedback techniques used by patients with epilepsy could also be useful for those with bipolar disorder.”

The visual display of electrical activity in the brain is derived from signals detected by an array of electrodes placed against the scalp and organised as a meaningful “graph” by an electroencephalograph (EEG) instrument. Purpose-built software then transforms the “graph” into a display in the form of a computer game: patients observe the movement of characters on the screen as their mood changes, and practise controlling those movements by the voluntary control of their mood. “By playing the game they learn to control their brain activity,” Mr Kary said.

Mr Kary and his supervisors in the project at UNE, Dr Graham Jamieson and Dr Tanya Hanstock, are now recruiting subjects for the study – people between the ages of 18 and 65 who have bipolar disorder and who would be interested in helping with this search for an alternative treatment. It would involve a weekly session of about one hour for 10-15 weeks.

This is the first trial of the efficacy of neurofeedback for managing bipolar disorder. “An adjunct to conventional treatment such as this would be welcomed by people who don’t like taking medication for various reasons – including the development of side-effects such as weight gain and tremors,” Mr Kary said.

People interested in participating in the trial should contact Mr Kary on 0407 243 851 (e-mail: akary@une.edu.au) or Dr Jamieson on (02) 6773 4279 (e-mail: gjamieso@une.edu.au).

THE PHOTOGRAPH displayed here shows Alex Kary and Dr Tanya Hanstock demonstrating the attachment of EEG electrodes.