How does bipolar disorder affect learning?

by Rebecca Israel, MS and Charles Li, MD

June 07, 2020

  • Bipolar disorder may decrease the odds of completing higher education.

  • Children with bipolar disorder sometimes struggled with memory and recall.

  • Educational attainment and memory deficits of bipolar disorder may affect learning.

Bipolar Disorder and Learning: Considering education and memory

In special education classrooms, you can find children with learning disabilities such as autism and language disorders. The classrooms give extra attention to these students and cater to their learning needs. But what about children with other disorders that may affect learning? In this article, we examine bipolar disorder, educational attainment, and cognitive defects.

Educational attainment

Education is one way to numerically measure learning in a population. Researchers in Demark used the national Danish Registry to access records on all residents. In total, they collected data on over two million young adult residents, of which 0.12% were diagnosed with bipolar disorder in a psychiatric hospital.

Bipolar Disorder and Education: Study Setup

Source: Bipolar Disorder and Depression in Early Adulthood and Long-Term Employment, Income, and Educational Attainment: A Nationwide Cohort Study of 2,390,127 Individuals

Researchers found that bipolar disorder increased the odds of no higher education before the age of 30. Interestingly, these odds slightly decreased when they re-assessed at age 50. This could be an indicator that bipolar disorder may delay higher education, oppose to prevent it.

Bipolar Disorder and Education: Study Results

There are numerous reasons why bipolar disorder could prevent educational attainment that does not directly relate to learning ability. The bipolar population may not enjoy academia or may prefer to work. There could be substantial financial barriers. They could have duties to their family or community that require their attention.

All of this to say, education may be an indicator of learning ability, but it is highly influenced by other external factors. So, we looked at cognitive performance too.

Memory

Researchers wanted to narrow the field of potential reasons why bipolar disorder may be associated with learning difficulties. Memory is regularly associated with learning. Without memory, we could not recall, process, or understand new knowledge. People who struggle with memory may find it harder to study and pick up new skills.

In a study of school-age children, they theorized that problems with memory could be a barrier to learning for bipolar children. Specifically, researchers used a test that measured verbal learning and memory, called the CVLT-C. The test required participants to memorize and recall a collection of word lists, and children were then given a score.

Bipolar Disorder and Memory: Study Setup

Source: Memory and Learning in Pediatric Bipolar Disorder

Children with bipolar disorder performed more poorly on short term recall after being exposed to an interference task. They also had more short and long term delays. However, there was no difference between the groups on immediate recall and long term recall.

Bipolar Disorder and Memory: Results

This data suggests that children with bipolar disorder may have difficulty with some aspects of memory. However, if we look at the margins of error, they are somewhat overlapping. When this happens, it causes researchers to question whether or not the groups are actually different from one another.

With this in mind, a larger sample of school-age children would give researchers a clearer understanding of their relationship.

It could also be argued that short and long term recall is used differently depending on the topic. In addition, completing a higher education degree is not a catch-all metric for learning. Therefore, there could be variation in their ability to learn depending on the task and situation.

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