Hunter was just a youngster when it became apparent that something was frighteningly wrong with him.
“It was horrible. Once I went to his school and the principal was holding my son on the ground, restraining him. Hunter had been attacking teachers and tried to stab himself with a pencil…and he had been saying that he was going to kill himself. He was just a little boy and he was hearing voices in his head telling him to end his life. We had to do something,” said Hunter’s mother, Karen.
Bipolar disorder is a difficult diagnosis under the best of circumstances. The sufferer cycles between extreme mood shifts, moving from extreme anger and tantrums to maniacal happiness and even giddiness. It takes its toll not only on the person with bipolar disorder but on everyone close to him. For children and their families, bipolar disorder can be particularly cruel. More than 70% of children and teens with bipolar disorder have tried to kill themselves at least once.
After years of struggling to find out what was wrong with Hunter, his family came to Bradley Hospital, where comprehensive, cutting-edge research for treating bipolar disorder was being conducted with astonishing results by Dr. Daniel Dickstein, Director of the PediMIND Program at the hospital: “By participating in research, Hunter got an in-depth evaluation—far more detailed than the standard clinical approach. We also do special brain scans to literally see what is going on in the minds of children with bipolar disorder and related conditions. Our goal is to identify bio-markers—scans and tests—so that we can diagnose and treat bipolar disorder and related problems earlier and more specifically.”
Dr. Dickstein’s research is not only comprehensive…it’s innovative. It has shown that kids with bipolar disorder have specific brain and behavior changes in cognitive flexibility—the ability to adapt to changing rewards and punishments. Now he is working to translate these findings into a new brain-based treatment. By playing special computer games, patients will build skills in areas shown to be impaired. This same approach—special computer games to fix a brain-based problem—has shown great success in adults with psychiatric problems, including schizophrenia and depression. But until now, no one had tried it in children with bipolar disorder.
Hunter was the first child to play this special “retrain your brain” game for bipolar disorder. This allowed Dr. Dickstein and his colleagues at Brown University and across the country (Dickstein is an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Brown) to get important preliminary data to see if youngsters with bipolar disorder can be engaged by the game—and maybe even get better. The game uses sound effects and reward points to build cognitive flexibility skills.
Hunter has responded very well to the game and with a combination of medication therapy and help from the caring Bradley team involved in his treatment, he has made significant progress at home and in school.
(Photograph: Daniel Dickstein, M.D., Director PediMIND Program)
“Hunter loves sports. He is now a Boy Scout. When he brought home his report card, he had gotten all A’s and one B. Up until now, he had been failing in every subject. When we showed him the report card, he couldn’t believe it and he had the biggest smile on his face. Now everybody enjoys him in school and he is a happy kid” said his proud mother.
Dr. Dickstein agrees that Hunter has done very well in this unprecedented PediMIND program. “He will continue to need treatment but I am sure he will continue to improve. This is clearly an exciting time to partner together—patients and families, clinicians, researchers, and people all over who want to make a difference in the present and future for kids struggling with bipolar disorder and related problems. Nobody else is doing this. Nobody else has a novel, brain-based treatment for bipolar disorder.”
Because of the generosity of donors like you who have supported our many programs, including the amazing work you just read about, we have been able to help children like Hunter lead productive and happy lives.