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Biology 103
2002 First Paper
On Serendip

Bipolar Disorder and the Connection to Dyslexia

Meredith Stoll

Dyslexia is affecting more and more children every year, and although most educators would agree that dyslexics are "not people who see backwards, (1)" there is still no solid theory on why dyslexics cannot differentiate between the sounds "or" and "ro." At the same time, bipolar disorder is becoming more and more understood by scientists as more and more people, especially children, are diagnosed with every year. These two seemingly different disorders, both lacking a cure, are often found within the same children, and yet no substantial research has been conducted nor have educators been taught how to teach some one who is both dyslexic and bipolar.

The most universal diagnosis of bipolar disorder consists of massive mood swings, ranging from manic to severe depression, all within a few hours. Manic episodes often consist of long periods, in which sufferers may feel elevated, think that they are invincible, have trouble focusing on one topic, and need little to no sleep. Depression episodes can also be long, but instead of riling sufferers, it makes them fall into a state a feeling hopeless, increased apathy, decreased appetite, and "a drop in grades, or inability to concentrate (2)."

Bipolar disorder, especially found in children and adolescents, is not just a phase that they can hope to out grow. It is a biological phenomenon in which the brain overworks in some areas to compensate for others not working hard enough. Neurotransmitters are cells that send signals between brain cells using chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, also known as monoamines (2). In bipolar patients, "40 percent have a loss of the serotonin 1a receptor, which may contribute to the atrophy of neurons, and may set off depression (3)." These lack of neurons affect the other parts of the brain that control understandings of rewards, possible dangers, and emotions. By not having as many messenger cells, these areas of the brain are not as connected to each other, meaning that sufferers' brains are not able to control themselves as much as a person without bipolar disorder because their brains are "wired differently (4)."

Bipolar disorder used to be thought of as an adults-only disorder. While only 1-2 percent of the adult populations suffer from this disorder, it is now thought that up to one third or 3.4 million children may be exhibiting symptoms of bipolar disorder (3). Bipolar disorder by itself would seem bad enough, but "it is suspected that a significant number of children diagnosed in the United States with attention-deficit disorder with hyperactivity (ADHD) have early onset bipolar disorder instead of, or along with, ADHD (2)."

ADHD is, like most disorders, not completely understood, and although the symptoms are now recognized, the causes are still in dispute. Sufferers are often hyperactive, unruly, and unable to concentrate. Medications as Ritalin are often used to combat such hyperactive symptoms and help sufferers return to a normal life. While the symptoms are often treated, the cause of them is not understood nearly as well. ADHD is thought to be the result in imbalances, within and outside of the body. Factors such as congenital and biochemical are thought to be main causes, although more and more research is proving that stress can also be a significant contributor to the outbreak of symptoms. For every child or adult who is suffering from ADHD, approximately 50 percent also suffer from other learning disorders, the main one being dyslexia (5).

At one time, a dyslexic was dismissed being lazy or even dumb. It affects one in 20 people (6), and is now known as one of the most common learning disorders. Thought to be congenital, dyslexics have problems "translating language to thought or thought to language (1)," meaning that they often have problems reading or remembering how to spell a word, not matter how often they see it. One theory as to why dyslexics cannot make the connection between written and spoken language is that the they have smaller magnocellular pathways, routes on which magnocells, or nerve cells found between the retina and the place where the right and left images are combined to form one image, carry the image to the brain. Since these pathways are smaller, some of the information may be "lost (7)."

But Dyslexia is not purely a visual problem, and the answer to the riddle has yet to be solved. One thing researchers do know it that stress, anxiety, and other factors can increase the impairment of this disorder (5). Men and women, along with children cannot have their dyslexia cured, but they can learn to live with it. Unfortunately, dyslexia does not display many physical symptoms; so diagnosing the disorder can be difficult, unless one knows quite a bit about it. As a result, many children are not diagnosed until later, and still have to deal with the stresses of being thought of as an underachiever or having a lower IQ by other fellow students and even teachers. When dyslexia is combined with ADHD or bipolar disorder, the levels of stress and anxiety on an individual skyrocket, making all of the conditions worse, and forcing the student to have an even harder time with school and everyday life.

The possible link between dyslexia and bipolar disorder has not been nearly as extensively investigated as the two disorders in isolation. But a link may exist. If about majority of cases of bipolar disorder also involve ADHD and about half of all ADHD cases involve dyslexia and/or another learning disability, it may be possible that a direct link between bipolar disorder and dyslexia may exist. At the moment though, there is no research ongoing directly connecting the two.

Teachers are responsible for educating all children, including those with learning disabilities. To, a multisensory teaching approach, known as the Orton and Gillian approach (8) has been proven to help dyslexics learn and master previously impossible tasks substantially. But, the Orton and Gillian method can only help those with dyslexia alone and does not ever consider other disorders that may be at play within the same student. Although the multisensory approach can be easily adapted for each dyslexic, seeing as each case of dyslexia varies in severity, it has yet to be modified to compensate for ADHD or bipolar disorder. Until the day when scientists and teachers formulate connection and method of teaching that deals directly with a combination of learning disorders, sufferers are going to continue to struggle, in turn making their disorders even worse and giving them more power over their lives.


1) - a database for articles and links for psychological disorders


3) Kluger, Jeffrey, "Young and Bipolar," Time Magazine 160 (August 19, 2002): 38-51






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