The Brain Imbalances of Teen Bipolar Disorder

Everyone has their own way of balancing their internal states. Perhaps on the way to school, you pick up a Starbucks latte, which blocks the chemical in the brain called Adenosine causing drowsiness. Or another way you might start your day is going for a run, pumping up the shots of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephine that exercise releases.

Teen Bipolar Disorder

However, the biochemistry of a teen with Bipolar Disorder is so extreme that a morning run or cup of coffee isn’t going to facilitate balance. His or her levels of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephine are at chaotic levels. Making it difficult to find what will restore a feeling of ease. An adolescent might wake up in the morning with such a low level of dopamine that he or she feels severely depressed, and then by late afternoon, his or her mood has shifted to such an elevated degree that nothing short of psychotropic drugs will provide stability. Learn more about the symptoms of teen bipolar disorder here.

According to Moretza and Karen Khaleghi, authors of the book Anatomy of Addiction, Bipolar Disorder is the sixth leading cause of a disability in the world. Reports shows that one in five people with Bipolar Disorder will commit suicide, and 20% of all individuals who commit suicide are bipolar. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that this disorder affects almost 5.7 million American adults. And that the typical onset for this mental illness is 25 years of age. However, bipolar can also begin in childhood and develop as late as 40 years of age.


More specifically, bipolar will develop in about 1-5% of children and adolescents. When Bipolar Disorder develops in childhood or early adolescence, it is known as an early-onset form of the mental illness. In these cases, it is often more severe with frequent mood swings and physical sickness. It’s true that Bipolar Disorder is difficult for anyone at any age, but its challenges become more acute for teenagers. One example is that adolescents will swing from high to low more quickly than adults. With the developmental changes that they are also undergoing, the changes in mood can become more intense. A teenager might be feeling immensely morose and depressed with suicidal thoughts and then swing to an experience of increased energy, an inflated sense of self (grandiosity), and impulsivity.

Brain Development

This difference in the experience of mood swings between teens and adults might be due to the differences in brain development. For instance, the grey matter of the brain, which contains most of the brain’s neurons and is known as the thinking part of the brain, is still growing in teens. However, for adults, the brain’s grey matter development is complete. Alongside this is the still developing frontal cortex, which completes its growth during ages 23-26. The frontal cortex performs reasoning, planning, judgment, and impulse control, necessities for being an adult. This might explain a teen’s tendency to make poor decisions and an inability to discern whether a situation is safe.

These tendencies might also contribute to the risk factor in a teen’s experience of mania. Typically, euphoria, elation, racing thoughts, irritability, and substance use are common symptoms of a manic episode. The symptoms of depression that certain imbalances in the brain can cause are decreased energy, insomnia, fatigue, agitation, and suicidal thoughts. It’s not surprising to know that approximately 40% of teens with Bipolar Disorder also have a substance abuse disorder. Cocaine use, for example, could help amplify a high while the use of marijuana could help with lowering mood if adolescents feel too hyper or manic. Some teenagers will also engage in other forms of self-harm. Such as cutting or risky behavior as a way to take away their emotional pain and accelerate the highs.


However, if any of these symptoms appear to be present for you or an adolescent you know, the next step is to seek the assistance of a mental health professional. Rather than attempting to restore the imbalances in the brain yourself, being assessed by a psychologist or counselor can facilitate finding the right long-term treatment and healing.


Khaleghi, M. & Khaleghi, K. (2011). The anatomy of addiction. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan

Miklowitz, D. & George, E. (2008). The bipolar teen: what you can do to help your child and your family. New York, NY: Guildford Publications

“Bipolar Disorder in Children and Adolescents.” National Institute of Mental Health. National Institute of Health, 2012. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.


Further Reading

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