Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated abnormalities in patients with bipolar disorder, including overactivity in anterior limbic structures in response to fearful or happy facial expressions. We investigated whether such anomalies might constitute heritable deviations underlying bipolar disorder, by virtue of being detectable in unaffected relatives carrying genetic liability for illness. Twenty patients with bipolar I disorder, twenty of their unaffected 1st degree relatives and twenty healthy volunteers participated in functional magnetic resonance imaging experiments of facial emotion processing. In one of these experiments, the participants watched faces expressing fear of varying intensities (moderate and high), intermixed with the non-emotional faces, and in another experiment - faces expressing moderate or high degrees of happiness intermixed with non-emotional faces. Repeated measures 2x3x3 ANOVA with emotion (fear and happy), intensity (neutral, moderate, and high) as within-subjects variables and group (patients, relatives, and controls) as between-subjects variable produced two clusters of differential activation, located in medial prefrontal cortex and left putamen. Activity in medial prefrontal cortex was greater in patients and in relatives compared with healthy volunteers in response to both fearful and happy faces. Activity in left putamen in response to moderate fear was greater in patients and in relatives compared with controls. Patients (but not relatives) showed also a greater activation in response to high intensity happy faces, compared with controls. Region of Interest analysis of amygdala activation showed increased activity in left amygdala in both patients and relatives groups in response to intensively happy faces. Exaggerated medial prefrontal cortical and subcortical (putamen and amygdala) responses to emotional signals may represent heritable neurobiological abnormalities underlying bipolar disorder.
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