This work provides an overview of the most consistent alterations in bipolar disorder (BD), attempting to unify them in an internally coherent working model of the pathophysiology of BD. Data on immune-inflammatory changes, structural brain abnormalities (in gray and white matter), and functional brain alterations (from neurotransmitter signaling to intrinsic brain activity) in BD were reviewed. Based on the reported data, (1) we hypothesized that the core pathological alteration in BD is a damage of the limbic network that results in alterations of neurotransmitter signaling. Although heterogeneous conditions can lead to such damage, we supposed that the main pathophysiological mechanism is traceable to an immune/inflammatory-mediated alteration of white matter involving the limbic network connections, which destabilizes the neurotransmitter signaling, such as dopamine and serotonin signaling. Then, (2) we suggested that changes in such neurotransmitter signaling (potentially triggered by heterogeneous stressors onto a structurally-damaged limbic network) lead to phasic (and often recurrent) reconfigurations of intrinsic brain activity, from abnormal subcortical–cortical coupling to changes in network activity. We suggested that the resulting dysbalance between networks, such as sensorimotor networks, salience network, and default-mode network, clinically manifest in combined alterations of psychomotricity, affectivity, and thought during the manic and depressive phases of BD. Finally, (3) we supposed that an additional contribution of gray matter alterations and related cognitive deterioration characterize a clinical–biological subgroup of BD. This model may provide a general framework for integrating the current data on BD and suggests novel specific hypotheses, prompting for a better understanding of the pathophysiology of BD.
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