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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Stabilizing the Unstable: Biomedical Research on Bipolar Disorder

  • Author(s): Starshinina, Anna Victorovna
  • Advisor(s): Gates, Kelly A
  • et al.

This dissertation analyzes scientific research on bipolar disorder to explore how contemporary biomedical researchers investigate a condition that they understand to be only partly biological. Researchers emphasize the importance of social life and environment in the emergence of bipolar disorder, yet focus their research on isolated biological features, including human and animal brains, genes, and molecular processes. They aim to explain this complex condition by focusing on just one piece of the puzzle at a time. But could these varying scientific approaches yield a unified understanding of bipolar disorder?

This dissertation draws on ethnographic research to examine three biomedical research laboratories that focus on bipolar disorder. By describing the details of scientific practice, I show how distinct versions of bipolar disorder as a research object are actively crafted in laboratory research. This work sheds light on how researchers grapple with unstable research objects. There is no singular bipolar disorder, which is characterized by instability both in terms of patient experiences and diversity of scientific explanations. I argue that scientists use techniques of stabilization to produce a provisionally stable research object and thus create a distinct version of bipolar disorder in their laboratories. The work of stabilization in these laboratories is never complete and researchers continuously redefine their research objects.

Ultimately, I argue that the different sets of tools and methods employed in neuroimaging, genetics, and animal research laboratories produce distinct versions of bipolar disorder. I challenge the idea that multiple research projects with varying methodologies can build up to a ‘big picture’ understanding of bipolar disorder. Based on my observations and on published scientific articles, I show that the research object in various laboratory sites is not the same object. Because bipolar disorder is defined and understood in different ways, findings from diverse research sites are incompatible with one another. I conclude that the aim of finding the overarching biological explanation for bipolar disorder needs to be more adequately balanced with efforts to improve clinical services and address patients’ needs today.

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