History of Bipolar Disorder

Varying moods and energy levels have been a part of the human experience since time immemorial. The words "depression" (previously "melancholia") and "mania" have their etymologies in Ancient Greek. The word melancholia is derived from ‘melas’, meaning black, and ‘chole’, meaning bile, indicative of the term’s origins in pre-Hippocratic humoral theories. Within the humoral theories, mania was viewed as arising from an excess of yellow bile, or a mixture of black and yellow bile. The linguistic origins of mania, however, are not so clear-cut. Several etymologies are proposed by the Roman physician Caelius Aurelianus, including the Greek word ‘ania’, meaning to produce great mental anguish, and ‘manos’, meaning relaxed or loose, which would contextually approximate to an excessive relaxing of the mind or soul. There are at least five other candidates, and part of the confusion surrounding the exact etymology of the word mania is its varied usage in the pre-Hippocratic poetry and mythologies.

The idea of a relationship between mania and melancholia can be traced back to at least the 2nd century AD. Soranus of Ephedrus (98-177 AD) described mania and melancholia as distinct diseases with separate etiologies; however, he acknowledged that “many others consider melancholia a form of the disease of mania”.

A clear understanding of Bipolar Disorder as a mental illness was recognized by early Chinese authors. The encyclopedist Gao Lian (c. 1583) describes the malady in his Eight Treatises on the Nurturing of Life (Ts'un-sheng pa-chien).

The earliest written descriptions of a relationship between mania and melancholia are attributed to Aretaeus of Cappadocia. Aretaeus was an eclectic medical philosopher who lived in Alexandria somewhere between 30 and 150 AD. Aretaeus is recognized as having authored most of the surviving texts referring to a unified concept of manic-depressive illness, viewing both melancholia and mania as having a common origin in ‘black bile’.

The contemporary psychiatric conceptualization of manic-depressive illness is typically traced back to the 1850s. Marneros describes the concepts emerging out of this period as the “rebirth of bipolarity in the modern era”. On January 31, 1854, Jules Baillarger described to the French Imperial Academy of Medicine a biphasic mental illness causing recurrent oscillations between mania and depression. Two weeks later, on February 14, 1854, Jean-Pierre Falret presented a description to the Academy on what was essentially the same disorder.

Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926), a German psychiatrist considered by many (including Hagop Akiskal M.D.) to be the father of the modern conceptualization of bipolar disorder, categorized and studied the natural course of untreated bipolar patients long before mood stabilizers were discovered. Describing these patients in 1902, he coined the term "manic depressive psychosis." He noted in his patient observations that intervals of acute illness, manic or depressive, were generally punctuated by relatively symptom-free intervals in which the patient was able to function normally.

After World War II, Dr. John Cade, Psychiatrist, Bundoora Repatriation Hospital, Melbourne, Australia was investigating the effects of various compounds on veteran patients with manic depressive psychosis. In 1948, Dr. Cade discovered that Lithium Carbonate could be used as a successful treatment of manic depressive psychosis. This was the first time a compound or drug had been discovered that proved to be a successful treatment of any psychiatric condition. The discovery was perhaps the beginning of psychopharmacological treatments of psychiatric conditions. The discovery preceded the discovery of phenothiazines for the treatment of schizophrenia, and the discovery of benzodiazepines for the treatment of anxiety states, by 4 years.

The term "manic-depressive illness" first appeared in 1958. The current nosology, bipolar disorder, became popular only recently, and some individuals prefer the older term because it provides a better description of a continually changing multi-dimensional illness.