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Keywords:

  • bipolar disorder;
  • children and adolescents;
  • diagnosis;
  • phenomenology;
  • sensitivity and specificity

Objective:  To find, review, and critically evaluate evidence pertaining to the phenomenology of pediatric bipolar disorder and its validity as a diagnosis.

Methods:  The present qualitative review summarizes and synthesizes available evidence about the phenomenology of bipolar disorder (BD) in youths, including description of the diagnostic sensitivity and specificity of symptoms, clarification about rates of cycling and mixed states, and discussion about chronic versus episodic presentations of mood dysregulation. The validity of the diagnosis of BD in youths is also evaluated based on traditional criteria including associated demographic characteristics, family environmental features, genetic bases, longitudinal studies of youths at risk of developing BD as well as youths already manifesting symptoms on the bipolar spectrum, treatment studies and pharmacologic dissection, neurobiological findings (including morphological and functional data), and other related laboratory findings. Additional sections review impairment and quality of life, personality and temperamental correlates, the clinical utility of a bipolar diagnosis in youths, and the dimensional versus categorical distinction as it applies to mood disorder in youths.

Results:  A schema for diagnosis of BD in youths is developed, including a review of different operational definitions of ‘bipolar not otherwise specified.’ Principal areas of disagreement appear to include the relative role of elated versus irritable mood in assessment, and also the limits of the extent of the bipolar spectrum – when do definitions become so broad that they are no longer describing ‘bipolar’ cases?

Conclusions:  In spite of these areas of disagreement, considerable evidence has amassed supporting the validity of the bipolar diagnosis in children and adolescents.