Emotional processing in bipolar disorder studied

New research from the Yale Psychology Department suggests individuals with bipolar disorder not currently suffering from its symptoms are able to perceive others’ emotions just as accurately as healthy people.

To measure emotional perception, the research team used a theory of mind test, which gauges subjects’ abilities to sense others’ emotional states. While they suspected the bipolar patients would be less accurate in emotional perception, the results showed that individuals with remitted bipolar disorder demonstrated no differences in their ability to accurately perceive the emotions of others compared to individuals with unipolar depression and healthy subjects.

In the study, individuals with bipolar disorder, depression and healthy controls were shown a series of pictures, each depicting a human face displaying a particular emotion, and were then asked to identify the emotion exhibited as quickly and accurately as possible. Contrary to the researchers’ hypothesis, the groups did not differ in accuracy.

However, reaction times varied widely between groups, as the bipolar subjects made emotional state judgments much more rapidly than the control group and the unipolar group, said June Gruber, study author and Yale professor of psychology.

“Our findings suggest that the quicker [the bipolar subjects] guessed the emotion of another the worse life-functioning difficulties they exhibited,” Gruber said. “We imagine in everyday life, where facial expressions are more complex, that this kind of impulsive guessing of other people’s emotions may cause them difficulty.”

Twelve months after the initial theory of mind test, the researchers followed up with the subjects to assess their overall quality of life and social functioning. The investigators found that those that reacted fastest in the initial study — individuals who tended to be bipolar — had more social impairments. Gruber said faster reactions to emotion may lead those with bipolar disorder to jump too quickly to conclusions about others’ emotional states.

This connection between reaction time and social functioning in bipolar disorder may lead to new targeted treatments for bipolar disorder, said Rebecca Boswell, a graduate student at Yale in clinical psychology.

Gruber said that the greatest limitation of the study was that it took place in a laboratory, adding that she hoped to examine how their results generalized to everyday social interactions.

“This study has gotten me more interested than ever in studying the social context in which emotion unfolds,” Gruber said. “It is a humble reminder of how important understanding emotion in our everyday lives is.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly 2.6 percent of the U.S. adult population will exhibit symptoms of bipolar disorder in any 12-month period.

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