How Does Bipolar Disorder Affect the Brain?

More than 5 million Americans have some form of bipolar disorder. If you’re living with the condition, you might have mood swings that alternate from exciting highs (manic) to devastating lows (depression). Bipolar disorder might also cause you to talk extremely fast, have racing thoughts, or feel out of control. In fact, sometimes the disorder can cause you to do reckless things before you have a chance to think about or realize what you’re doing. Additionally, bipolar disorder may make you feel irritated, restless, paranoid, hyperactive, and impulsive, or cause people to misunderstand you. When people don’t understand bipolar behavior, they may mistake you for an egomaniac during a manic episode or call you overly dramatic during a depressive episode. But bipolar disorder is a real neurological illness that changes the way your brain operates.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Also known as manic depression, bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings and shifts in your energy and activity levels. There are three different types of bipolar disorder. If you’re diagnosed with the condition, you may have one of the following three types:

  • Bipolar I Disorder. This form mainly manifests as manic episodes that last for at least a week. This type of mood disorder can include other abnormal behavior that can disrupt your life, such as depressive episodes that can last for 2 weeks or more.
  • Bipolar II Disorder. If you have been diagnosed with this type of bipolar disorder, you may have more depressive episodes than manic reactions and symptoms. If you do have manic episodes, they will probably be hypomanic, or less severe.
  • Cyclothymic Disorder. This form of bipolar disorder combines hypomanic and depressive symptoms that last for 2 weeks (or 1 year in children and adolescents). But, in this disorder, neither the hypomanic nor depressive symptoms meet the clinical requirements for a manic or depressive episode.

When you have a manic episode, you may feel:

  • Jumpy or wired
  • “High” or elated
  • Irritable or touchy
  • Like you don’t need sleep or food
  • Racing thoughts
  • Unusually important, talented, or powerful

If you’re having a depressive episode, you may feel:

  • Sad or “down”
  • Empty or hopeless
  • Slow yet restless
  • Excessively hungry
  • Like you have nothing to do or say
  • Frustrated when you try to focus or concentrate on something
  • Worthless
  • Like it’s impossible to do simple things

Regardless of the type of bipolar disorder you’re diagnosed with, the condition can drastically change how you feel and think.

Parts of the Brain Affected by Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Can Reduce The Amount of Gray Matter in Your Brain

Studies have shown that bipolar disorder reduces the amount of gray matter in your brain. The parts of your brain that are usually full of gray matter help you:

  • Process information, thoughts, and feelings
  • Control impulses and your senses
  • Regulate motor skills like reaction time, balance, drawing, speech, and writing

When the amount of grey matter in your brain decreases, you may have less control over your impulses. Reduced gray matter can also change how you process information and react to your feelings. This may explain why manic episodes often seem impulsive, careless, and thoughtless. Less gray matter might also lead to feelings of sluggishness and frustration, as well as trouble doing simple tasks when you have a depressive bipolar episode.

Bipolar Disorder Can Shrink Part of Your Brain’s Hippocampus

Research published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry reveals that people with bipolar disorder tend to have smaller and more shrunken parts of the hippocampus in comparison to people without mood disorders. The hippocampus is responsible for the way you process long-term memories.

The right side of the hippocampus helps you associate certain places with specific memories. The left side of the hippocampus regulates verbal and visual memory. This part of the brain also helps regulate how you respond to situations emotionally.

When your mood shifts, your hippocampus changes shapes and shrinks. A shrunken hippocampus can lead to symptoms like:

  • Depression, which can trigger depressive episodes
  • Memory problems, which can contribute to racing thoughts and paranoia
  • Frustration and irritability

Bipolar Disorder May Change Your Brain’s Chemical Balance

As complex as your brain is, there’s a delicate chemical balance that makes sure your mind functions in a healthy way. Neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, are an important part of your brain’s chemical balance. When you have bipolar disorder, the number of neurotransmitters in your brain can change. Scientists believe the main neurotransmitters affected by bipolar disorder include:

  • Noradrenaline or norepinephrine, which increases alertness, arousal, and speeds up your reaction time. The neurotransmitter also plays a role in your ability to concentrate.
  • Serotonin, which helps regulate how happy, anxious, and moody you feel. Serotonin also helps determine how you behave socially and regulates your sleep patterns.

Bipolar disorder may cause the amount of these brain chemicals to fluctuate. If and when this happens, too much or too little of these brain chemicals can trigger a manic or depressive bipolar episode.

Bipolar Symptoms Triggered By Norepinephrine Levels

High levels of norepinephrine, for example, can trigger manic symptoms like:

  • Invincibility
  • A false sense of superiority
  • Racing thoughts
  • Jumpy and touchy sensations
  • Impulsive

On the other hand, low levels of norepinephrine can lead to a depressive episode that may make you feel:

  • Lethargic
  • Paranoid
  • Unable to focus or concentrate on anything
  • Anxious and depressed
  • Uninterested in doing or saying anything

Bipolar Symptoms Triggered By Serotonin Levels

The same is true for serotonin. Extremely high serotonin levels can provoke a manic episode if you have bipolar disorder, which might make you feel:

  • Restless
  • Anxious
  • Irritated
  • Higher than life

If you have bipolar disorder and low serotonin levels, you might experience a depressive episode with symptoms that can include:

  • Low-self-esteem and feeling worthless
  • Insomnia
  • Poor appetite
  • Depression

Scientists aren’t 100% sure if bipolar disorder causes neurotransmitter levels to fluctuate or vice versa, but they do know that medication and therapy can help treat episodes in bipolar individuals.

Let Us Help You Manage & Treat Bipolar Disorder

As debilitating as bipolar disorder can be, it doesn’t have to control your life. Here at StoneRidge Centers, we have programs that can help you manage the mood disorder and any other co-occurring disorders you may be living with. We’re passionate and focused on restoring the brain to its optimal state of health. That’s why we have designed our programs to include the best of what brain science has to offer.

At the same time, we know that living with and managing a mood disorder can be challenging and overwhelming, so our approach to care is compassionate and comprehensive. Call us today at 928-583-7799 if you or a loved one are living with bipolar disorder and are ready to manage it in a healthy, wholesome way.

Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies

Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

This low-impact magnetic stimulation activates neurons inside the brain, relieving symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

qEEG/Brain Mapping

Using brain scanning and readings, we create a map of our patients’ brains, helping us develop more targeted and effective treatments.


This process assists patients in visualizing their own brain functionality through continuous EEG readings.

Spravato Therapy

We use carefully monitored doses of Spravato to help patients struggling with complex mental health disorders, including severe depression.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Patients use this practice to help reframe intrusive or negative thought patterns and develop coping techniques for long-term recovery.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

This practice helps patients learn to regulate emotions, communicate more effectively, and process their own thoughts and feelings..

Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR)

Licensed and trained therapists guide patients through this technique for managing stress and anxiety on an ongoing basis.

Individual Therapy

Patients experience one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist to provide a safe and private place to recover and heal.

Group/Family Therapy

Patients can practice the skills and techniques they have learned in treatment with others in a safe, therapist-guided space.

Contact StoneRidge Centers

5940 E. Copper Hill Dr. Ste B & E, Prescott Valley, AZ. 86314

We exercise progressive, leading brain science in our treatment approach for patients in our community and across the country who are struggling with mental health and addiction challenges.