Neuroimaging studies of bipolar disorder (BD) generally involve comparison with healthy controls (HC), which may mask neurobiological variability within the disorder. This study aims to assess the neural underpinnings of potential subgroups of BD patients based on functional activity in the emotion regulation network and its relation to illness characteristics and relapse risk. Eighty-seven remitted patients with recently diagnosed BD and 66 HC underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while performing an emotion regulation task. Patients were re-assessed with clinical interviews after 16 (±5) months. Data-driven hierarchical cluster analysis was employed to investigate 'neuronal subgroups' of patients based on their neuronal activity in a pre-defined emotion regulation network. Relations between neuronal subgroups and illness characteristics and relapse rates were examined. Patients were allocated into two subgroups. Subgroup 1 (n=62, 75%) was characterized by exaggerated bilateral amygdala reactivity but normal prefrontal and temporo-parietal activation. Subgroup 2 (n= 22, 25%) showed widespread hypo-activity within all emotion regulation regions. Both subgroups were less successful at down-regulating their emotions than HC (F(2,146)=5.33, p=.006, ηp2=.07). Patients in subgroup 2 had a history of more and longer mixed episodes (ps≤.01). Importantly, heightened amygdala activity across all patients was associated with increased risk of relapse during a 16-month follow-up period (β=3.36, 95% CI [1.49;550.35], N=60, p=.03). The identified neuronal subgroups of patients with either amygdala hyper-activity or broad network hypo-activity during emotion regulation points to neurobiological heterogeneity among remitted patients with BD. Heightened amygdala reactivity may be a neuronal target for personalized treatments to prevent relapse.
Keywords: Bipolar disorder; Cluster analysis; Emotion regulation; Subgroups; fMRI.
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