January 26, 2023

What Actually Causes Bipolar Disorder?

Sarah Sperry, Ph.D., was interviewed for this Wondermind article. 

Link to the original article on Wondermind's website. 


We know you want a clear-cut answer here, but experts say there’s no one cause of bipolar disorder. Instead, research suggests that multiple factors—like your genes and things in your upbringing—can come together to cause it. Plus, the equation for what actually causes bipolar disorder in one person isn’t going to be identical to someone else’s, says Sarah Sperry, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan and an associate director in the university’s Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Program.


Childhood trauma

Research suggests that experiencing trauma growing up can also add to your risk of developing bipolar disorder, particularly earlier on in life, according to the DSM-5-TR. FYI, that trauma can include things like violence and sexual trauma, but it can also look like extreme neglect where you don’t have enough food or a stable support system at home, says Dr. Sperry.

Not to sound like a broken record, but it’s not clear why exactly childhood trauma can trigger bipolar disorder, Dr. Sperry says. One theory is that trauma may reduce the brain’s ability to adapt and change on the fly (aka its neuroplasticity), and without adequate ability to adapt to challenges, people could be more vulnerable to mental health issues, including bipolar disorder, she says.

Plus, facing childhood trauma can cause a supercharged fight or flight response when stressful life events happen in the future, Dr. Sperry adds. That stress response could lead you to cope by turning to substances (think: alcohol, cannabis, and stimulants) that might actually add more fuel to the fire, she explains. Just so you know, if you’re already at risk for developing bipolar disorder, it’s possible that substance use can set off manic symptoms for the first time, according to the DSM-5-TR.

On that note, some of the research that Dr. Sperry is working on right now has her diving into the idea that these substances further mess with your circadian rhythm, or your body’s internal clock that helps you know when to sleep, which may up your bipolar risk and can trigger mood episodes like mania, she says. It’s all ~connected~.