Bipolar and Memory

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I often see problems with memory loss accompanying bipolar disorder in children and adults. I also see this in depression.  Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder, not a behavioral disorder. The primary reason memory is affected in people with bipolar disorder is because the brain controls memory, and the brain structures in bipolar people are different and impacted by the disease.

Deficits in executive functioning, learning and attention have all been clearly associated with bipolar disorder. This is similar to adhd.  It is therefore, no surprise that memory and bipolar disorder are also related.

Memory requires three different capabilities; encoding, storage, and retrieval. 

In order to have good memory, you need to pay attention and concentrate to hear and get the information you need.We call this encoding. Encoding is the ability to make a sensory pathway and the events that are perceived. 

Storage process is maintaining that path for retrieval later. Storing the information in your brain. 

Retrieval  is the ability to recover and utilize that information. 

In thinking about what a person with bipolar disorder suffers from when unstable, it's easy to see how memory could be compromised. Bipolar seems to affect all these components of memory. In addition to this the key areas of the brain involved in memory are those that are shown to be structurally different in bipolar disordered patients.

Studies suggest that in bipolar people's  problems with short and long-term memory may even  this may persist between manic and depressive episodes. They also they suggest they tend to be more severe when persons have manic episodes .Studies also show patients with bipolar disorder exhibited significant deficits in working memory and attention.


What about depression and memory loss?


We also know a few things about memory and depression.

  • 1. When depressed people are asked to recall memories in response to neutral cues, they are mostly able to recall only negative experiences. 
  • 2. Depressed people have certain times of day when they are more depressed than others, and during these times of day their brain can only recall negative things, this reinforce the cycle of depression.
  • 3. Depressed people lack the ability for specificity in their memories. for example, when asked to give details about their day, the can only give details in a general way, rather than a specific way.  They are less likely to remember happy details. This is something that most of us might do to regulate our mood. 
  • 4. Depressed people sometimes seem in a brain fog which impacts their attention and concentration, thus impacting their memory

The Good News: Brain Plasticity

Understanding the relationship of memory to bipolar disorder is  important to you if you have bipolar child or a loved one with bipolar. I hope this page will give you more compassionate about the difficulties you or your loved one are having.

This is a medical condition. You need to give as much patience and understanding to you or your loved ones limitations as you would to those of a stroke victim.

Using this same analogy, you also need to put as much effort towards developing methods and skills to assist yourself or your loved ones with these deficits as you would to a stroke victim.

Incredibly, studies have also suggested that treatment with lithium has helped to either slow down, prevent or reverse some of the structural changes in the brain! Does this mean that if you work at developing memory and other skills that you could change the structure of your brain? I think that is possible.

Other issues for bipolar kids or adults that can cause memory problems

Other issues for people with bipolar disorder that may be contributing to memory problems are medications, and/or ECT/ Both of these treatment interventions may exacerbate memory problems for someone with bipolar disorder. 

Some Coping Skills

Medication

Forgetting your medication can be a pretty big issue. I have worked with many intelligent and competent bipolar people who have trouble remembering to do this. Don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed if this is an issue for you. Remember there is a physical reason for much of your difficulties, but that is not an excuse to not to the best you can to manage your illness. Enlist in the help of family members and friends to help ensure you take your medication.

Short term memory

Write it down! One of the children I work with frequently would interrupt family session with unrelated ideas. One day we spoke with him about the inappropriateness of this and he replied he was afraid he was going to forget! As a solution we gave him a pad to write down his ideas on. This really seemed to help. It may be that you need visual aids in several places to remind you thoughts, conversations, or ideas that you have. You even may need to write things down during conversations so you can remember what you were talking about. There is no shame at all to working on managing the effects of bipolar and memory loss in this way. Some similar strategies can be used with children who have adhd.

Appointments

Use several different sources for reminders. You can have reminders taped to several places of your house. It is likely that the more visual the better, but you may also need auditory reminders, such as alarm clocks during certain times during the day. Utilize technology! There are many free programs on the internet that offer calendars with reminders. For example Google calendar. Also, you can keep online to do lists with a program like tadalist to help with bipolar and memory loss.

Meditation and mindfulness

Learning meditation or another form of mindfulness is really one of the best things you can do. This is a strategy that will calm down your brain, and an emotionally regulated brain, is less likely to function better in all cases. The more regulated your brain is, the better all aspects of it will function. 


Amnesia and Rages in Children or Highly Emotional Events in Adults

In addition to the day to day troubles with memory that children and adults with bipolar disorder have, there is also a unique problem with memory that people who work with bipolar children have observed.

Families and children, I work with will often say after a rage their child has difficulty with remembering what happened. Although parents often believe this is a child’s way of avoiding taking responsibility, the pattern seems too frequently observed in my office to be attributable to that. In fact, so much of their rages to me seem seizure like. Seizures have been known to cause these kinds of memory issues.

In the past, I thought the memory and bipolar connection was related only to rages. Many of the children would claim not to have remembered many details around the events that happened. They knew something bad had happened, it involved them getting angry and that their parents were upset with them. Recently I have also been told by the adults that I had treated as children reported gaps in their memories that seemed related to highly charged emotional events



Other pages on bipolar disorder and depression in children

Depression among children

Preventing depression in children

Symptoms of depression

Treatment of depression




Hyman, I. (2015, March 27). Https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mental-mishaps/201503/can-you-break-the-mood-memory-cycle. Psychology Today.

Siddiqui, R., & Qureshi, M. (2014). MEMORY IMPAIRMENT IN SCHIZOPHRENIA AND BIPOLAR DISORDER: A COMPARATIVE STUDY. Pakistan Journal of Psychology, December 2014, 46, 1, 41-51, 46(1), 41-51. Retrieved July 23, 2019.

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