KING’S COLLEGE LONDON (UK)—A recent study offers the first evidence linking exceptional intellectual ability to bipolar disorder. Researchers found top students were almost four times as likely to develop bipolar disorder as adults, compared to those with average grades.
Findings were published in the February issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry.
“We found that achieving an A-grade is associated with increased risk for bipolar disorder, particularly in humanities and to a lesser extent in science subjects,” says lead researcher James MacCabe, senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London. “A-grades in Swedish and music had particularly strong associations, supporting the literature which consistently finds associations between linguistic and musical creativity and bipolar disorder.”
Several possible explanations for the link were put forward; people in a state of hypomania (a mild period of mania or elevated mood) can often be witty and inventive, and able to link ideas in innovative ways; people with bipolar disorder often experience unusually strong emotional responses, which may help their talent in art, music and literature. Third, people with hypomania often have extraordinary stamina and can keep concentrating for long periods of time.
These types of cognitive style may help students perform better in creative school subjects—but also predispose them to bipolar disorder in later life.
The researchers used results taken from Sweden’s annual compulsory exams taken by 15-16 year olds annually between 1988 and 1997. Comparisons were drawn between the Swedish hospital discharge register to test associations between the students’ academic achievement and admission to hospital with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder between the ages of 17 and 31. A total of 713,876 individuals were included in the study.
The increased risk among students with higher grades remained after the researchers considered other factors such as parental education and socioeconomic status.
Students with the poorest grades were also at a moderately increased risk of bipolar disorder. They were almost twice as likely to develop bipolar compared to those with average grades.
Some people who go on to develop bipolar disorder, particularly those with depressive symptoms, may have cognitive styles that impair their academic performance. It is also possible that disturbed behaviour, substance misuse, or undiagnosed depression may affect their studies.
The research also showed that the association between high grades and risk of later bipolar disorder appears to be stronger in males than females. But more research is needed in this area.
Researchers from Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, contributed to the work.
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