Basic biology implicated in wild spending spree

March 6, 2012 

— It’s pretty common for us “little peanuts” to feel some envy about the wealthy and better-known citizens among us.

Who, after all, wouldn’t want to be a millionaire?

But recently the news carried a piece about Ed Bazinet, 68, a wealthy New Yorker who went on a wild spending spree that ran into the millions of dollars. His problem, it turns out, is the brain malady known as manic depression (or bipolar disorder).

According to ABC News, Bazinet spent five days buying millions of dollars worth of furniture, art and knick-knacks before he realized his behavior was owing to mania and he checked himself in for treatment.

Medical science has long recognized that wild spending is a classic sign of the manic phase of mood and energy that people with bipolar disorder must sometimes contend with. Such sprees can be disastrous to a person’s finances, obviously, and they can also be deeply embarrassing. While an American in more typical circumstances than Bazinet may go through a modest spending spree, say racking up thousands of dollars of bills on a credit card, the scale of Bazinet’s spending and his fame in New York meant that his personal problem became a public news item.

Still, it could be that some good can flow from Bazinet’s difficult experience. As his publicist put it, “There is no shame with seeking help for this treatable illness, and we hope that this opens a dialog to educate others.”

Manic depression is not a disease of just modern times. Going back all the way to ancient Greece there are medical descriptions of people with strongly alternating periods of energy and moods. Early doctors noted that a person could be “high” and then “low” in quick succession, with alternating periods of tears and euphoria. Indeed, in what are now called mixed states, people can experience ups and downs that are strongly interlaced with each other. The bipolar brain, if you will, can run the “upside” as well as the “downside” chemistry at pretty much the same time.

Like schizophrenia, bipolar tends to show up in adolescents and young adults. It cuts down people – including some very able ones – just as they are really coming into their own. The good news is that doctors are now more likely to recognize bipolar symptoms earlier than they once did. And early treatment can lead to better outcomes for the individual.

But that’s hardly to say everything is rosy in the bipolar world. Some manic-depressives experience more than just highs and lows. In extreme cases, patients can suffer psychotic symptoms such as visual or auditory hallucinations. That fact makes the disease deeply scary, both for the person experiencing it and for friends and family members.

Modern medical science is making progress in identifying fundamental genetic factors that influence who gets the disorder. The science indicates that bipolar disorder runs in families not because of poor parenting (nurture), but because of biological factors (nature) wrapped up in genes handed down from one generation to another. A wider appreciation of this basic fact is helping to combat some of the stigma that still clings to mental illness in our society.

Lithium was the first medicine that helped many people with bipolar disorder. The next group of drugs doctors found useful were anti-seizure medications. In recent years, drugs with the challenging name “atypical antipsychotics” have been found to help many people. Abilify is perhaps the best known medication in that class – you’ve likely seen it advertised on TV.

In one respect Mr. Bazinet in New York is lucky: because he is wealthy he is able to get treatment for his condition, including medications that can cost a pretty penny.

But even if a person can afford them, medicines prescribed for bipolar illness are often not easy to take. Side effects are real and can be debilitating. It takes time and work for doctors and patients alike to find the best medicines for a particular individual. That’s true for both Medicaid patients and millionaires.

Pharmaceutical companies continue to create new medications that can treat bipolar disorder better and with fewer side-effects. We can only hope they are increasingly successful.

* Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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