Note: The following article discusses “off-label” treatments for the treatment of PTSD or traumatic brain injury, i.e. those which are not FDA-approved for these purposes. In some of these instances, there is no controlled research to support the use of these drugs in patients with PTSD. Thus the ideas noted here cannot be taken as anything more than anecdotal information from personal experience. Patients and physicians must make their own decisions about any of the strategies reported in this or other issues of BNN.
At a recent scientific conference, Vaishali P. Bakshi, a renowned Canadian psychopharmacologist, shared a novel treatment strategy he has developed for patients with exceptionally profound degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which, particularly among military veterans, can be compounded by traumatic brain injury.
Treatment options based on placebo-controlled clinical trials are sometimes insufficient for the treatment of seriously ill patients. FDA-approved treatment for PTSD consists of serotonin-selective antidepressants, while exposure therapies (in which the patient is gradually exposed to more of the stimuli that triggered symptoms) are the recommended psychotherapy, but these methods often leave patients highly disabled.
Bakshi’s typical treatment algorithm goes well beyond these treatment guidelines to find solutions for hard-to-treat patients. He first addresses sleep disturbance, which often occurs in PTSD. He suggests the anticonvulsant levetiracetam (Keppra), starting at doses of 150mg per night and increasing to 500–1000mg as tolerated. This highly sedating anticonvulsant not only improves sleep but may also help cognition, since it is structurally similar to other cognitive enhancers such as piracetam. Levetiracetam also decreases the hippocampal hyperactivity associated with some forms of cognitive dysfunction, as we’ve noted before. In order to further enhance sleep effects, Bakshi adds trazodone at 50–150mg per night as needed.
Instead of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), Bakshi recommends the selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Among these, he prefers desvenlafaxine (Pristiq) over venlafaxine, as desvenlafaxine has fewer interactions with other drugs. Theoretically, duloxetine (Cymbalta) is another SNRI that could be used.
Another component of Bakshi’s treatment plan is topiramate (Topamax), which can target many comorbidities of PTSD, including alcohol and substance abuse, particularly stimulant abuse. In addition, topiramate has efficacy in anger attacks, which often accompany PTSD.
In patients with ongoing problems with depression and/or cognition, Bakshi adds bupropion (Wellbutrin). Read more
Patients with PTSD often struggle with nightmares, but a treatment normally used for high blood pressure may also be able to prevent these sometimes horrific dreams. In a study that marks the third replication of this finding, Murray Raskind, a researcher from the University of Seattle, reported that prazosin was significantly better than placebo at selectively blocking nightmares in 77 Iraq war veterans with PTSD in a 15-week trial. (Interestingly, normal dreaming is uninterrupted.)
Editor’s Note: Prazosin is a noradrenergic alpha-1 receptor antagonist. Doses of this drug must be titrated upward slowly over a period of 6 weeks to avoid orthostatic hypotension (a sudden fall in blood pressure that occurs when a person stands up). Maximum doses achieved in this study were 5mg mid-morning and 20mg at night (although 10mg at night is often effective). This treatment, although not FDA-approved, is increasingly being used in veteran populations and other patients with PTSD.
At a recent scientific meeting, Thomas Neylan and colleagues reported that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be connected to autoimmune illnesses. In this study, 673,277 veterans of the US military who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan were screened for the development of PTSD. The illness was diagnosed in 31% of the veterans, and those individuals had a higher incidence of autoimmune-related disorders including thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, and systemic lupus erythematosus. Neylan’s research group specifically examined those whose disorders developed after the onset of the PTSD, and found that the statistical relationship between their illnesses and PTSD was strong. However, the researchers also found that there was evidence of a similarly strong relationship in the other direction: veterans who were first diagnosed with some of these same autoimmune difficulties also went on to develop PTSD.
Many previous clinical and preclinical studies have linked altered immune and autoimmune mechanisms to severe stressors such as those that are involved in PTSD. This is the first study to unequivocally demonstrate the relationship in an extraordinarily large number of patients.
Editor’s Note: These findings resemble those that suggest that among the general population, childhood adversity is associated with an increased incidence of a variety of medical disorders in adulthood. Similarly, in the Bipolar Collaborative Network in which this editor (Post) is an investigator, we found that a history of childhood adversity in patients with bipolar disorder was associated with an increased incidence of a variety of medical illnesses in adulthood, including some related to immune and autoimmune function.
More research that would measure inflammatory markers in PTSD and mood disorders is needed. It would also be important to ascertain whether treatment of mood disorders and PTSD reduces the risk of autoimmune disorders.
Adults with bipolar disorder have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and premature death from cardiovascular illness than the general population. At the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Benjamin Goldstein presented a poster in which he showed that youth with bipolar disorder may also have abnormal cardiovascular function.
When a tourniquet is applied, blood vessels normally expand to make up for the period of oxygen deprivation. This does not happen as readily in patients with mood disorders. This lack of flexibility and compensatory response could be one of the reasons for increased cardiovascular difficulties in those with mood disorders.
In Goldstein’s study, noninvasive ultrasound imaging was used to measure the thickness of the walls of the carotid artery and flow mediated dilation of the artery in adolescents with bipolar disorder and those without the illness. The data was collected by a certified ultrasound technologist who remained blind to the patients’ diagnostic and symptom status.
Goldstein found highly abnormal results in 14 adolescents aged 14 to 19 with bipolar disorder compared to controls. He concluded that reducing cardiovascular risk in bipolar disorder is a pressing clinical and public health challenge and that treating these patients while they are adolescents may offer considerable advantages both for prevention and for understanding the progression of cardiovascular problems in patients with bipolar disorder.
Substance Use Among Canadian Adolescents with Bipolar Disorder: The Critical Need for Intervention and Prevention
At the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), Antoinette Scavone presented a poster on correlates of substance use disorders among Canadian adolescents with bipolar disorder. Participants were 62 adolescents aged 14 to 19 with bipolar disorder. Twenty-three participants (37.1%) had a substance abuse disorder.
Those with a comorbid substance use disorder were more likely to have a comorbid panic disorder or an oppositional defiant disorder. They also had higher rates of police contact or arrest, were more likely to have been involved in assault, and were more impulsive. In addition they had experienced more stressful life events.
Editor’s Note: These data from a Canadian sample replicate previous findings in the US and again indicate the critical importance of preventing the onset of substance abuse in adolescents at especially high risk because of their bipolar disorder.
At the 2012 annual meeting on pediatric bipolar disorder sponsored by the Ryan Licht Sang Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital, Timothy E. Wilens gave a plenary talk on “The Explosive Combination of Bipolar and Substance Abuse.”
Wilens cited the statistic that 10% of adolescents in the general US population have at some time received a diagnosis of a substance abuse disorder. The age of onset of substance abuse peaks between ages 15 and 20.
Wilens said that in a recent survey about use in the past month, among participants in the general population aged 12 or higher with substance use, about 50% use marijuana and about 50% use prescription narcotics (often obtained from their parents’ medicine chest).
The rate of mortality from substance abuse has risen dramatically since 1993 and now approximates that from automobile accidents. According to Wilens, rates of emergency room visits and fatalities have increased recently, and this has been linked to opiate overdoses.
Adolescents with bipolar disorder are at greatly increased risk of substance abuse compared to the general population. Most substance abuse follows the onset of bipolar disorder, not vice versa.
Wilens cited the data of researcher Ben Goldstein that on 8-year follow up, 32% of bipolar adolescents developed a substance use disorder. Those treated with antimanic agents were much less likely to develop a substance use disorder. MORAL: Treat bipolar disorder psychopathology in adolescents well and help them avoid substance abuse.
Children with persistent emotion dysregulation were: 1) more likely to develop a substance use disorder; 2) more likely to begin using substances earlier; and 3) more likely to have a more severe form of combined (multiple) substance use disorders.
Treating Substance Use
Wilen suggested that a good interview is better than urine toxicology screens for assessing substance use. He suggested the following treatment paradigm: Read more
Kellen and colleagues presented a poster at the 9th International Conference on Bipolar Disorder (ICBD) held in Pittsburgh in 2011, in which they reported that 21% of patients with rapid cycling bipolar disorder have confirmed sleep apnea. Since many patients who screened positive for sleep apnea on the study’s sleep questionnaire did not undergo follow-up sleep studies to confirm the diagnosis, it is estimated that up to 40% of rapid cycling patients may, in fact, have sleep apnea.
Editor’s note: Given such a high incidence of sleep apnea among rapid cycling bipolar patients, it would be prudent for patients and clinicians to be alert to the possibility of sleep apnea and follow up with appropriate sleep studies. Sleep apnea can cause daytime fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, and treatment resistance, so its identification and treatment with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) may be enormously beneficial to a substantial number of rapid cycling bipolar patients. A just-published article by Sukys-Claudino in Sleep Medicine presents findings that compared to placebo, the anti-Alzheimer’s drug donepezil (Aricept) started at 5mg/day for 2 weeks and then increased to 10 mg given twice a day (20 mg/day total) helped all measures of sleep apnea including daytime sleepiness.
Clinical hints that a patient may be suffering from sleep apnea include loud snoring, long pauses between breaths, and non-restorative sleep. The likelihood of sleep apnea increases with age and with overweight or obesity.
Sherwood Brown and colleagues from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center have completed a successful placebo-controlled trial of citicoline for bipolar and unipolar depression with comorbid methamphetamine dependence. Forty-eight participants with methamphetamine dependence and either unipolar or bipolar depression were randomized to either citicoline (2000 mg/day) or placebo for 12 weeks. Those receiving citicoline had significantly greater improvement in scores on the Inventory of Depressive Symptoms compared with those who received placebo, and patients receiving citicoline stayed in the study significantly longer, with completion rates of 41% on citicoline and 15% on placebo.
In 2007, the same team of investigators reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology that citicoline had positive effects in bipolar patients with cocaine dependence, who experienced significant decreases in cocaine use and fewer cocaine-positive urine tests while taking citicoline.
At the 65th Annual Scientific Convention of the Society of Biological Psychiatry this year, Giacomo Salvadore reported that significantly higher levels of uric acid are found in patients with mania compared with normal controls.
Editor’s note: This study was particularly interesting because there was a highly significant difference between patients and controls, with very few values overlapping. The data suggest the possibility that uric acid may be a useful biological marker for mania, and is one that should be studied in childhood-onset bipolar illness to determine whether uric acid is a marker for mania in children as well.
Allopurinol, a widely used treatment for gout that reduces levels of uric acid in the blood, is an effective antimanic agent (based on data from two placebo-controlled studies, one by Machado-Vieira et al. and one by Akhondzadeh et al.). The new data on uric acid raise the possibility that high levels of uric acid may be a specific predictor of responsiveness to Allopurinol, although this hypothesis has not yet been explored.
In an article by Chung et al. just published in Psychiatry Research, it was reported that in a very large epidemiological study in Taiwan, patients with bipolar disorder have increased risk of gout.
New research shows that there are more early onsets of illness and more difficult courses of bipolar illness in the US than in the Netherlands or Germany.
This editor was invited to give a plenary presentation at the 4th Biennial Conference of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders in Sao Paulo, Brazil in March. The talk, titled “A greater incidence of early onset bipolar illness and poor prognosis factors in patients in the US compared with those in The Netherlands and Germany,” was based on studies in our Bipolar Collaborative Network.
We found that patients who were studied and treated at four sites in the US (Los Angeles, Dallas, Cincinnati, and Bethesda) had more poor-prognosis factors and indices of difficult courses of bipolar illness compared with patients studied in the same fashion at three sites in Utrecht, the Netherlands and Freiberg and Munich, Germany. We presented some of these data in a preliminary report in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2008 and further analyzed these data for an article published last year in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Read more