By the time psychosis appears in someone with schizophrenia, biological changes associated with the illness may have already been present for years. A 2015 article by R.S. Kahn and I.E. Sommer in the journal Molecular Psychiatry describes some of these abnormalities and how treatments might better target them.
One such change is in brain volume. At the time of diagnosis, schizophrenia patients have a lower intracranial volume on average than healthy people. Brain growth stops around age 13, suggesting that reduced brain growth in people with schizophrenia occurs before that age.
At diagnosis, patients with schizophrenia show decrements in both white and grey matter in the brain. Grey matter volume tends to decrease further in these patients over time, while white matter volume remains stable or can even increase.
Overproduction of dopamine in the striatum is another abnormality seen in the brains of schizophrenia patients at the time of diagnosis.
Possibly years before the dopamine abnormalities are observed, underfunctioning of the NMDA receptor and low-grade brain inflammation occur. These may be linked to cognitive impairment and negative symptoms of schizophrenia such as social withdrawal or apathy, suggesting that there is an at-risk period before psychosis appears when these symptoms can be identified and addressed. Psychosocial treatments such as individual, group, or family psychotherapy and omega-3 fatty acid supplementation have both been shown to decrease the rate of conversion from early symptoms to full-blown psychosis.
Using antipsychotic drugs to treat the dopamine abnormalities is generally successful in patients in their first episode of schizophrenia. Use of atypical antipsychotics is associated with less brain volume loss than use of the older typical antipsychotics. Treatments to correct the NMDA receptor abnormalities and brain inflammation, however, are only modestly effective. (Though there are data to support the effectiveness of the antioxidant n-acetylcysteine (NAC) on negative symptoms compared to placebo.) Kahn and Sommer suggest that applying treatments when cognitive and social function begin to be impaired (rather than waiting until psychosis appears) could make them more effective.
The authors also suggest that more postmortem brain analyses, neuroimaging studies, animal studies, and studies of treatments’ effects on brain abnormalities are all needed to clarify the causes of the early brain changes that occur in schizophrenia and identify ways of treating and preventing them.
In a talk at the 2015 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, researcher Eric Youngstrom showed that mothers’ evaluation of their children’s psychiatric symptoms was more valid than both teacher ratings and the children’s own evaluations. Parents were better at detecting irritability, while children were better at assessing their energy levels and the quality of their sleep.
Youngstrom reported that about 2% of children worldwide are diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, when bipolar disorder not otherwise specified (BP NOS), a diagnosis given when symptoms do not meet the diagnostic criteria for Bipolar I or II, is included in the statistics, rates of bipolar disorder among children in the US reach about 6%.
Youngstrom mentioned that an epidemiological study by Kathleen Merikangas found that among children in the US with a bipolar spectrum diagnosis, only 22% were in treatment, compared to 38% of those with depression and 60% of those with ADHD.
Parents of children (aged 2–12) with mood, anxiety, and behavioral disorders are invited to join the Child Network, our program for tracking weekly symptoms which can then be printed out longitudinally to share with the child’s doctor.
Pediatric acute neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS) is a little-known syndrome in which a child has an acute onset of psychiatric symptoms following a bacterial or viral infection, when the antibodies generated to fight the infection instead attack neurons in the brain. The behavioral alterations can be severe and resistant to the usual psychotropic drug treatments. PANS often requires antibiotics and immune-targeted therapies.
The following is a case report of a real child who had a sudden onset of depression and violence after getting sick with the flu, pneumonia, and a strep infection at the age of 4. (Names have been changed for privacy.)
Anne contacted this editor (Robert M. Post) seeking a consultation on her 6-year-old son, Jake. Two years earlier, he had suddenly become difficult—depressed, angry, and even violent. This coincided with the emergence of obsessive compulsive symptoms and urinary incontinence. He went from being able to read short sentences in pre-kindergarten, to being cognitively dull and not even able to recognize letters of the alphabet. He had been diagnosed with a mood disorder, and Anne was told it was probably bipolar disorder. But he didn’t respond to any of the typical medications, and suffered side effects including hallucinations, nightmares, bowel accidents, and worsening depression.
The best results came with the atypical antipsychotic risperidone. While it didn’t reduce all of Jake’s symptoms, Anne described it as “heaven” compared to earlier treatments. But Jake’s levels of prolactin started to increase, and he lost bladder control, so he had to stop taking risperidone. Jake’s doctor tried 18 different medication regimens with 8 different medications in less than a year without finding one that worked well. Jake had a horrible time in school, and Anne fretted about the lack of an effective, stable medication, saying, “He’s actually worse than I’ve ever seen him.”
Dr. Post recommended that they consider using high doses of quetiapine and valproate for Jake’s aggression and behavioral dyscontrol, along with the antioxidant N-acetylcysteine and vitamin D3. However, given that Jake’s symptoms were severe, involved cognitive and neurological abnormalities, and had begun after a flu-like illness, and was unresponsive to conventional treatment, Dr. Post suggested that Anne get Jake checked out for PANS and start charting Jake’s mood on a daily basis.
Jake began taking higher doses of quetiapine and valproate, and improved to the point that Anne said they restrained him only once a day, rather than four times per day. But his behavioral dyscontrol continued. In one memorable incident, after feeling picked on by other children at a baseball game, he lashed out at Anne, kicking her in the face with his cleats and punching her glasses off her face.
Anne told Dr. Post that the family had visited a neurologist, who said that she had never heard of PANS and suggested that Anne would have to travel across several states to see Dr. Post if she wanted to pursue that diagnosis.
Dr. Post encouraged Anne to keep looking for a doctor who would take the PANS idea seriously. He sent her a comprehensive review article about PANS by Dr. Kiki Chang and colleagues published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology in 2014.
This past June, Anne found a doctor who understood PANS and was willing to run the appropriate tests on Jake. The tests revealed that Jake had at one time been infected with the bacteria mycoplasma. Read more
In a longitudinal study of 1,037 people born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1972 and 1973, most participants with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adulthood did not have the disorder as children. The study by Terrie E. Moffitt and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry is the first prospective longitudinal study to describe the childhood of adults with ADHD.
When the study participants were children, about 6% were diagnosed with ADHD (mostly males). These children also had comorbid disorders, neurocognitive deficits, multiple genes associated with risk for ADHD, and some life impairment when they reached adulthood.
In adulthood, about 3% of the participants had ADHD (roughly equal between men and women), and 90% of these participants had no history of ADHD in childhood. The participants with ADHD in adulthood also had substance dependence and life impairment, and had sought treatment for the disorder. The researchers were surprised to find that these participants with adult ADHD did not show neuropsychological deficits in childhood, nor did they have the genetic risk factors associated with childhood ADHD.
If the findings of this study are replicated, researchers will have to rethink the current classification of ADHD as a neurodevelopment disorder that begins in childhood, and begin to determine how adult ADHD develops.
Editor’s Note: Before the publication of this article, most investigators (including this editor Robert M. Post) thought that virtually all ADHD in adulthood evolved from the childhood disorder, and if it did not begin in childhood, the diagnosis was suspect. I still believe the ADHD that appears in adulthood in patients with bipolar disorder is likely attributable to residual depression and anxiety or hypomania and that more concerted treatment of the patient to full remission will often result in much better attention, concentration, and ability to follow through and stay on task.
People with chronic fatigue syndrome, or myalgic encephalomyelitis, as it has also been called, suffer from extreme exhaustion and unrefreshing sleep. The condition has been considered mysterious, but new research is clarifying its symptoms and leading to more useful treatments. In 2015, a committee convened by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences decided to change the name of the condition to systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID) to better reflect its symptoms and reduce stigma around the illness.
In recent years it had been determined that exercise regimens and cognitive behavioral therapy helped up to 60% of patients. Some new small studies show great results when patients are treated with anti-viral medications such as valacyclovir (Valtrex). Researcher Theodore Henderson reports that he has seen response rates as high as 85% in adults and 92% in adolescents.
Researchers now believe that some patients diagnosed with depression may actually have SEID. Symptoms like fatigue, exertion-induced malaise, brain fog, and impaired academic performance could be the result of the body’s reaction to a virus.
In a new study by ESM Eurelings and colleague in the journal International Psychogeriatrics, the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein differentiated between older people with symptoms of apathy versus symptoms of depression. Higher levels of C-reactive protein were found in those with symptoms of apathy. The researchers concluded that apathy may be a manifestation of mild inflammation in elderly people.
Both bipolar disorder and unipolar depression often begin in childhood or adolescence, but it can be difficult to distinguish the two using symptoms only. People with bipolar illness may go a decade without receiving a correct diagnosis. Researcher Jorge Almeida and colleagues recently performed a meta-analysis of previous studies to determine what neural activity is typical of children with bipolar disorder versus children with unipolar depression while processing images of facial emotion. They found that youth with bipolar disorder were more likely to show limbic hyperactivity and cortical hypoactivity during emotional face processing than youth with unipolar depression. Almeida and colleagues hope that this type of data may eventually be used to diagnose these disorders or to measure whether treatment has been successful.
In a recent retrospective study, people with bipolar disorder I, bipolar disorder II, and major depressive disorder were interviewed about a 14-year period of their illness, and several differences emerged.
People with bipolar disorder I described their illnesses as including more psychomotor retardation (slowing of movements) and more psychotic features. People with bipolar disorder II had more mixed states than both people with major depression and people with bipolar I disorder. They also had less psychomotor slowing than people with bipolar I disorder.
Another purpose of this study by Andrew Frankland and colleagues in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, was to determine the effectiveness of the Probabalistic Approach to Bipolar Disorder, a statistical method for differentiating diagnoses. The approach was successful in differentiating both bipolar subtypes from major depression, but not in differentiating between the bipolar subtypes.
Researcher Kiki Chang discussed pediatric acute onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS), an inflammatory illness with psychiatric symptoms, at the 2014 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. PANS is diagnosed when following an infection, a child who had previously been well has a sudden onset of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), mood dysregulation, tics, food restriction behaviors, and a variety of other symptoms. A similar syndrome called PANDAS (for pediatric acute onset neuropsychiatic disease associated with streptococcal infections) was first identified in children recovering from strep throat. The children suddenly developed OCD behaviors and tics after a streptococcal infection.
However, PANS is associated with a variety of infections, including viruses and other infections that do not involve streptococcus bacteria. PANS syndrome is typified by acute onset of obsessive compulsive disorder and food restrictions as well as two or more of the following symptoms: anxiety, mood swings and depression, irritability and aggression, behavioral regression, decreases in school performance, sensory motor abnormalities, and somatic alterations such as decreased sleep and urinary incontinence, frequency, and/or urgency. Tics are not part of the formal diagnosis, but are present in about 50% of patients.
In Chang’s experience, the syndrome emerged 65% of the time in relationship to streptococcal infections, 13% with mycoplasma infections, 58% with viral infections, 39% in association with sinusitis, and 16% with otitis (inflammation of the ear). Increases in blood flow in the basal ganglia and increases in its volume likely occur due to antibodies that the immune system produces to fight infection, but which instead attack elements in the brain’s striatum, including tubulin, calcium calmodulin kinase II, lyso-GM-1, and dopamine D1 and D2 receptors.
Chang suggested that a diagnostic workup for PANS should include: a complete blood count and screening for red blood cell sedimentation rate, mycoplasma antibodies IgG and IgM, anti-nuclear antibodies (ANA), ferritin (a protein that stores iron in blood), celiac disease, and other laboratory measures that are commercially available in a panel produced by the company Moleculera Labs. A more detailed description of the PANS syndrome and its diagnosis and workup is available in the most recent 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
In a related poster, Jennifer Frankovich, another researcher in Chang’s lab, reported that 62% of family members of children with PANS had a history of autoimmune disorders.
New research suggests that the ratio of cortisol to C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, may be a biomarker of depression that affects men and women differently. In women, lower ratios of cortisol to CRP were associated with more severe depression symptoms, including poor quality sleep, sleep disturbances, and decreased extraversion. In men, higher ratios of cortisol to CRP were associated with more daytime disturbance and greater anxiety. The study by E.C. Suarez et al. was published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
Further work must be done to confirm whether low cortisol and high inflammation predicts depression in women, while the opposite (high cortisol and low inflammation) predicts depression in men.