Risk for Bipolar Disorder Is Associated With Face-Processing Deficits Across Emotions

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Youths with euthymic bipolar disorder (BD) have a deficit in face-emotion labeling that is present across multiple emotions. Recent research indicates that youths at familial risk for BD, but without a history of mood disorder, also have a deficit in face-emotion labeling, suggesting that such impairments may be an endophenotype for BD. It is unclear whether this deficit in at-risk youths is present across all emotions or if the impairment presents initially as an emotion-specific dysfunction that then generalizes to other emotions as the symptoms of BD become manifest.


Thirty-seven patients with pediatric BD, 25 unaffected children with a first-degree relative with BD, and 36 typically developing youths were administered the Emotional Expression Multimorph Task, a computerized behavioral task, which presents gradations of facial emotions from 100% neutrality to 100% emotional expression (happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, anger, and disgust).


Repeated-measures analysis of covariance revealed that, compared with the control youths, the patients and the at-risk youths required significantly more intense emotional information to identify and correctly label face emotions. The patients with BD and the at-risk youths did not differ from each other. Group-by-emotion interactions were not significant, indicating that the group effects did not differ based on the facial emotion.


The youths at risk for BD demonstrate nonspecific deficits in face-emotion recognition, similar to patients with the illness. Further research is needed to determine whether such deficits meet all the criteria for an endophenotype.

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