Many patients with bipolar disorder experience cognitive deficits that impede their recovery and that persist during times of wellness. In a double-blind placebo-controlled study by K. N. Roy Chengappa et al. published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2013, the herb Withania somnifera (WSE, commonly called ashwagandha and sold under the name Sensoril) was significantly better than placebo at improving patients’ performance on three different cognitive tasks.
In the eight-week study, 53 patients took either 500 mg of WSE or placebo in addition to their regular medications.
The herb, which has traditionally been used in Ayurvedic medicine in India as an aid to resisting stress and disease, improved performance on digit span backwards (a test of short-term memory in which the subject must repeat a sequence of numbers backwards), Flanker neutral (a test of response time in which a subject must repress their instinct to give an incorrect response), and the Penn Emotional Acuity Test (which requires subjects to correctly identify facial emotions depicted in photographs).
Mood and anxiety levels were not different for the group taking WSE and the group taking placebo.
The researchers hope to continue their investigation of WSE with larger and longer-term studies that will explore the effects of different doses of WSE.
The combination of antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin) and naltrexone (Revia), a drug that helps alcoholics resist the craving for alcohol, can help patients keep their weight down. Last year we summarized an article by Smith et al. in the journal Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism that showed that obese patients with diabetes treated with the combination of bupropion and naltrexone had excellent weight loss and reduction in body fat compared to those treated with either drug alone or with placebo.
A more recent study by G. J. Wang et al. published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2013 shows that the combination of 360mg of bupropion sustained release and 32mg of naltrexone sustained release works by reducing patients’ response to food cues. Forty women were shown a video of their favorite food being prepared, which stimulated parts of the brain associated with visual stimuli and other functions. Those who received the combination of naltrexone and bupropion had lessened hypothalamic response to the videos compared to those who received placebo, and also showed activity in parts of the brain associated with inhibitory control (the anterior cingulate), internal awareness (the superior frontal cortex, the insula, and the superior parietal cortex), and memory (the hippocampus).
Editor’s Note: It looks like the drug combination prompts the brain to say, “Wow, that looks good, but maybe I shouldn’t take in any more calories today.”
Marijuana Addiction Associated with White Matter Loss and Brain Changes in Healthy People and Those with Schizophrenia
It has been established that cannabis use is associated with impairments in working memory, but researchers are still investigating how these impairments come about. A 2013 study by Matthew J. Smith et al. in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin compared regular marijuana users both with and without schizophrenia with demographically similar people who did not use marijuana.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers were able to map each participant’s brain structures. Healthy people who were marijuana users showed deficits in white matter (axons of neurons that are wrapped in myelin) compared to healthy people who did not use the drug. Similarly, patients with schizophrenia who used marijuana regularly had less white matter than those patients with schizophrenia who did not use the drug. There were also differences in the shapes of brain structures, including the striatum, the globus pallidus, and the thalamus, between cannabis users and non-users.
Differences in the thalamus and striatum were linked to white matter deficits and to younger age of cannabis use disorder onset.
Differences between cannabis users and non-users were more dramatic across the populations with schizophrenia than across the healthy populations.
Editors note: Future research is needed to determine whether marijuana causes these brain changes, or whether the brain changes are a biomarker that shows a vulnerability to marijuana addiction (although the latter is less likely than the former).
Other data show that marijuana is associated with an increase in psychosis (with heavy use), cognitive deficits, and an earlier onset of both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in users compared to non-users. These findings make pot begin to look like a real health hazard. With legalization of marijuana occurring in many states, ease of access will increase, possibly accompanied by more heavy use. The most consistent pharmacological effect of marijuana is to produce an amotivational syndrome, characterized by apathy or lack of interest in social activities. Particularly for those already struggling with depression, pot is not as benign a substance as it is often thought to be.
An oral preparation of lavender oil called Silexan decreased anxiety significantly more than placebo in a study by S. Kasper et al. published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology in 2014.
This randomized double-blind study of 539 patients with Generalized Anxiety Disorder compared two different doses of Silexan (160 mg and 80 mg) with a 20 mg dose of the antidepressant paroxetine and placebo. Both doses of Silexan reduced anxiety significantly more than placebo did. While paroxetine performed better than placebo, that result did not reach statistical significance.
Sixty percent of the patients who received the 160 mg dose of Silexan showed reductions of 50% in scores on the Hamilton Anxiety Scale (HAMA). In addition to its anti-anxiety effects, Silexan was associated with an antidepressant effect, improved general mental health, and improvement in health-related quality of life.
Combination of N-acetylcysteine and Risperidone Improves Irritability in Autistic Disorders More Than Placebo and Risperidone
In a 2013 study of 40 children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders published by Ahmad Ghanizadeh and Ebrahim Moghimi-Sarani in the journal BMC Psychiatry, the combination of the over-the-counter nutritional supplement n-acetylcysteine (NAC) and the atypical antipsychotic risperidone alleviated irritability more than the combination of placebo and risperidone. Side effects were mild. The data extend 2012 observations by A.Y. Hardan et al. in which NAC improved irritability and stereotypy (repeated behavior) in autism more than placebo did.
The two studies taken together support the effectiveness of NAC prescribed either alone or in conjunction with an atypical antipsychotic for the treatment of autism.
We’ve written before about the drug pramipexole, which is typically used to treat Parkinson’s disease and restless legs, but can also improve depressed mood and cognition in those with bipolar disorder. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) published a warning in 2012 that the drug may increase risk of heart failure, though more research is needed to confirm this link. In a review of existing studies, the FDA found that heart failure occurred more often in participants taking pramipexole than those taking placebo, but the finding did not reach statistical significance.
In a six-week study published by S.S. Qu et al. in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2013, participants with depression who received manual or electrical acupuncture along with the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant paroxetine (Paxil) improved more than those participants taking paroxetine alone.
More patients taking paroxetine alone needed increased doses to deal with symptom aggravation.
Patients who had received electrical acupuncture continued to show improvement four weeks after the treatment ended.
Intravenous scopolamine has shown promise as a rapid-acting antidepressant in studies by Carlos Zarate and colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Improvement on the drug can occur within 24 hours.
In a 6-week 2012 study, an oral preparation of scopolamine was more effective than placebo as an add-on medication to the selective serotonin reuptake intake (SSRI) antidepressant citalopram. Patients who received scopolamine and citalopram had higher rates of response and remission than those who received placebo and citalopram. The scopolamine group experienced more blurred vision and dizziness, which is to be expected from an anticholinergic drug, a drug that blocks the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain.
Carbamazepine (also known by its trade name Tegretol or, for extended release, Equetro) is one of the most widely used drugs for the treatment of epilepsy, and is relatively underutilized in the treatment of bipolar disorder. One of the reasons is fear of a rare serious rash or other side effects.
The risk of the serious rash ranges from about one in 5,000 to one in 10,000. Loss of white blood cells that fight infection (a condition called agranulocytosis) occurs in about one in 20,000 people taking carbamazepine, while a decrease in white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets (aplastic anemia) occurs in about one in 100,000 patients.
There is no way of predicting who will develop the blood disorders in reaction to carbamazepine use. A patient should contact their doctor and get a white blood cell count if they develop some warning signs of these conditions, such as a fever or sore throat without other explanation or signs of bleeding or red spots under the skin (called petechiae) that could indicate low platelets.
Genetic Test for Risk of Rash
A genetic test is available that can help estimate the likelihood of the serious rash among certain populations. In those of Asian descent, particularly Han Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, and Indian populations, having a version of the gene HLA-B known as HLA-B*1502 is highly associated with developing the rash. (The odds ratio was 79.84 in a 2013 meta-analysis by Tangamornsuksan et al. in the journal JAMA Dermatology).
In those of northern European or Japanese descent, having a version of the gene HLA-A known as HLA-A*3101 is associated with the severe rash. (Odds ratio for developing the most severe rash was 25.93 in a study of Europeans published by McCormack et al. in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011 and 10.8 in a study of Japanese published by Ozeki et al. in the journal Human Molecular Genetics in 2011). This HLA-A*3101 gene is present in about 2 to 5% of Europeans and 9% of Japanese.
A mild, non-serious rash with redness and itchiness occurs in about 5 to 10% of patients taking carbamazepine, and almost always goes away quickly upon stopping the drug. For patients taking carbamazepine who develop any rash, stopping the drug is the safest and most conservative thing to do. However, those who have taken the HLA test who know they do not have the risk genes and have only the benign rash might want to consider continuing to take the drug.
Benefits of Carbamazepine
There are a number of reasons why carbamazepine may be worthy of a treatment trial in patients with bipolar disorder who are not doing well on other agents. Carbamazepine works well in many patients with bipolar illness who have some of the common clinical predictors of a poor response to lithium. These include: having dysphoric (anxious, irritable) rather than euphoric mania, having an anxiety or substance disorder comorbidity, having had many prior episodes or rapid cycling (four or more episodes/year), not having distinct episodes with a period of wellness in between, having a sequential pattern of depression followed by mania followed by a well interval (D-M-I rather than M-D-I), having a schizoaffective disorder with delusions or hallucinations that persist after a manic or depressive episode has ended, and having no family history of mood disorders (especially bipolar disorder).
Some patients who do not respond to another anticonvulsant such as valproate do respond to carbamazepine. Patients with bipolar depression who have had a prior history of alcoholism may also do particularly well on carbamazepine. A benefit of the long-acting version of carbamazepine called Equetro is that it can be taken at bedtime and thus help with sleep and minimize daytime side effects.
Editor’s Note: Carbamazepine induces liver enzymes called CYP3A4 that increase the metabolism (breakdown) of carbamazepine and other drugs. Several drugs that inhibit 3A4 (such verapamil and erythromycin) prevent the breakdown of carbamazepine, causing blood levels of the drug to increase and produce side effects. If you are taking carbamazepine, tell your pharmacist so he or she can monitor any other drugs you are taking for potential interactions with carbamazepine.
Knowing about the rare skin and blood side effects of carbamazepine and some of the clinical predictors of a good response to the drug may be helpful in determining whether the potential benefits of carbamazepine outweigh the risks.
Not every treatment for mood disorders works for every patient, and for the 60% of depressed patients whose first treatment is ineffective, this wrong guess can translate into months of suffering, wasted money, lost productivity, and risk of suicide. An important trend in treatment research is the search for biomarkers, that is, biological indicators that can predict which patients might be likely (or unlikely) to respond to a particular treatment. A 2013 study by McGrath et al. in the journal JAMA Psychiatry suggests that brain glucose metabolism is one such biomarker.
Patients with untreated major depressive disorder had their brain glucose metabolism measured and then were randomized to receive 12 weeks of treatment either with the SSRI antidepressant escitalopram oxalate (trade name Lexapro) or with cognitive behavior therapy. Low glucose metabolism in a part of the brain called the anterior insula (compared to the rest of the brain) predicted that patients would reach remission on cognitive behavior therapy and respond poorly to escitalopram, while high metabolism in the same area predicted the opposite, that patients would reach remission while taking escitalopram and respond poorly to cognitive behavior therapy.
Researchers will want to test this finding with patients over the long term, but the data from this study suggest that anterior insula glucose metabolism may be a successful biomarker that can guide initial treatment selection for patients with depression.