Background Although children of bipolar parents are at heightened risk for developing emotional disorders, the processes underlying this vulnerability are not well understood. This study examined biases in the processing of emotional stimuli as a potential vulnerability marker of bipolar disorder.
Methods: Sixteen children of bipolar parents who did not show any indication of having an emotional disorder at the time of testing and ten children of never-disordered control parents underwent a negative mood induction designed to activate cognitive schemas and were then administered an emotion Stroop task and a self-referent encoding task.
Results: Children of bipolar parents were found to exhibit an attentional bias towards social-threat and manic-irritable words. Furthermore, although high- and low-risk children did not differ in their endorsement of positive and negative words as self-descriptive, the high-risk children demonstrated better recall of negative words than did the low-risk children.
Conclusions: Thus, children without a mood disorder who are at high risk for developing a mood disorder were found to exhibit biases in attention and memory that are similar to those found for bipolar and unipolar depressed adults, suggesting that children at increased risk for affective disorder are characterized by potentially pathogenic cognitive structures that can be activated by sad mood. These findings offer insights into mechanisms of cognitive vulnerability for bipolar disorders.