The Catholic University of America

Oct. 27, 2008

Professor Awarded $170,000 by NIH to Study Pediatric Bipolar Disorder

Brendan Rich

Assistant Professor of Psychology Brendan Rich was awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health last month totaling nearly $170,000 to study how children with bipolar disorder and anxiety process facial expressions.

Pediatric bipolar disorder is one of the most debilitating of all childhood psychiatric illnesses, Rich says. Studies show that many children with bipolar disorder also have anxiety disorder, which worsens their impairment. Despite the overlap, no studies have examined brain function in this group of children, he adds.

Youths with bipolar disorder are known to misidentify facial expressions and misinterpret neutral expressions as threatening. This can cause significant problems in social interactions.

Rich will study how anxiety might impact this deficit in youths with bipolar disorder. Most importantly, his work seeks to understand how the brain functions when these children view facial expressions, and how anxiety might alter neural functioning.

In conjunction with the National Institute of Mental Health, 100 children have been recruited nationally and enrolled in his study. Rich will compare how the children identify expressions and how their brains function during these trials. To do this, each child undergoes a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan. This scan measures brain activity by measuring blood flow. This will allow Rich to determine which parts of the brain are active when children view different facial expressions.

The study will compare children with bipolar disorder, with and without anxiety, to children who only have anxiety and to children with no psychological problems. By doing so, Rich hopes to identify which parts of the brain control facial expression processing, and to determine which parts are abnormally overactive and underactive in children with bipolar disorder when viewing different expressions.

"This study has the potential to clarify why bipolar children struggle to understand facial expressions, and what role anxiety may play in altering the brain's role in their expression perception," Rich says.

"Eventually, we hope this information can improve how we treat bipolar youth, or even help us to develop tests capable of identifying children who are at risk for bipolar disorder but haven't yet shown symptoms," he says.

MEDIA: For more information or to contact Brendan Rich for an interview, call Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy in the Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.