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Bipolar Spectrum Disorder may Be Under-recognized for Spectrum Disorder: Study

A new study supports earlier estimates of the prevalence of bipolar disorder in the U.S. population, and suggests the illness may be more accurately characterized as a spectrum disorder. It also finds that many people with the illness are not receiving appropriate treatment. The study, published in the issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, analyzed data from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R), a nationwide survey of mental disorders among 9,282 Americans ages 18 and older.

NIMH researcher Kathleen Merikangas, Ph.D. and colleagues identified prevalence rates of three subtypes of bipolar spectrum disorder among adults. Bipolar I is considered the classic form of the illness, in which a person experiences recurrent episodes of mania and depression. People with bipolar II experience a milder form of mania called hypomania that alternates with depressive episodes. People with bipolar disorder not otherwise specified (BD-NOS), sometimes called subthreshold bipolar disorder, have manic and depressive symptoms as well, but they do not meet strict criteria for any specific type of bipolar disorder noted in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the reference manual for psychiatric disorders. Nonetheless, BD-NOS still can significantly impair those who have it.

The results indicate that bipolar I and bipolar II each occur in about 1 percent of the population; BD-NOS occurs in about 2.4 percent of the population. The findings support international studies suggesting that, given its multi-dimensional nature, bipolar disorder may be better characterized as a spectrum disorder.

"Bipolar disorder can manifest itself in several different ways. But regardless of type, the illness takes a huge toll," said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. "The survey's findings reiterate the need for a more refined understanding of bipolar symptoms, so we can better target treatment."

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