Evidence from multiple studies has indicated the importance of beginning preventative treatment, particularly with lithium, early in the course of bipolar disorder. A 2016 comprehensive literature review by researcher Katie Joyce and colleagues in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders concluded that psychoeducation and medication are more effective in bipolar disorder when applied in earlier stages of the illness rather than later stages.
Several studies suggest that treatment for bipolar disorder should be started specifically after the first manic episode.
A 2014 study by researcher Lars Kessing and colleagues in the British Journal of Psychiatry examined 4,700 patients treated with lithium in Denmark. Kessing and colleagues found that those who started treatment after one manic episode were less likely to find lithium ineffective than those who started later.
Another study by researcher Michael Berk and colleagues presented at the International Society for Bipolar Disorders found that after a first manic episode, a year of treatment with lithium was much more effective on all measures of outcome, including mania and depression ratings, brain imaging, and neuropsychological functioning, than a year when patients were randomized to quetiapine (Seroquel).
Researcher Lakshmi Yatham and colleagues presented research at the International Society for Bipolar Disorders showing that patients recovered from the neuropsychological deficits associated with a first episode of mania if they were well treated and had no further episodes, while those who had new episodes did not return to their baseline capabilities. This suggests that early treatment that prevents future episodes helps maintain a healthy brain.
Kessing and colleagues previously reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2013 that patients randomized to two years of treatment in an outpatient clinic specializing in mood disorders following a first hospitalization for mania had 40% fewer recurrences of bipolar episodes over the next six years than those who received treatment as usual. These data indicate that early treatment, which may include psychotherapy, medications, mood charting (i.e. keeping a daily record of symptoms) and illness education, can improve the long-term course of illness. Lithium is often a key component of such treatment.
Editor’s Note: This type of intensive, ongoing treatment is not the norm after a first manic hospitalization in the United States, but it should be. Given the new data on the impact of starting lithium after a first episode of mania, and lithium’s superiority over quetiapine in the year following a first episode, lithium treatment should be standard following a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
In the past, sometimes doctors have recommended waiting until a patient has had multiple episodes of mania before beginning preventative treatment with lithium. This now appears to be a mistake.
Lithium protects against depressive as well as manic recurrences, and there is also evidence that it increases hippocampal and cortical volume, helping prevent cognitive deterioration in those with mild cognitive impairment. Lithium is also the most effective mood stabilizer for preventing suicide, and it increases the length of telomeres (caps on the end of DNA strands), thus preventing a wide range of medical and psychiatric illnesses. Lithium may need to be combined with other drugs to achieve a complete remission, but using it after a first mania is a good place to start.
A recent study shows that psychotherapy can not only improve depression symptoms, but may also reduce the inflammation that often accompanies them.
Researcher Jean Pierre Oses and colleagues randomly assigned participants with depression to receive Supportive-Expressive psychodynamic therapy, which is designed to help patients understand conflictual relationship patterns, or an alternative therapy. Among the 47 participants who received Supportive-Expressive therapy, depression improved significantly after 16 sessions, and blood levels of the inflammatory markers interleukin-6 and TNF alpha also dropped.
The research was presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry.
Recent studies have indicated that bipolar disorder is associated with changes to brain volume, including thinning of the cortex. In research presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, researcher Noha Abdel Gawad reported that four weeks of lithium treatment increased cortical thickness in the left superior frontal gyrus. This is the third replication of this finding.
Other research has established that lithium treatment also increases the volume of the hippocampus in people with bipolar disorder. Together the findings provide strong evidence that lithium treatment protects neurons and can reverse brain changes associated with bipolar disorder.
Telomeres are repeated DNA sequences that sit at the end of chromosomes and protect the DNA as it is replicated. Depressive episodes and age can reduce the length of telomeres. Lithium treatment increases telomere length. At the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, researcher Martin Schalling reported that the longer a patient takes lithium, the more their telomere length increases.
According to Schalling, people who respond well to lithium treatment show greater increases in telomere length than those who respond poorly to lithium.
While some cancers are associated with long telomeres, lithium use has not been found to increase cancer risk. In fact, lithium treatment can decrease the risk of certain cancers of the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and endocrine systems.
It has been clear for some time that depression and inflammation are linked. This has led researchers to explore a variety of anti-inflammatory agents to treat depression. A meta-analysis of studies examining anti-inflammatory treatments for bipolar depression was published in the journal Bipolar Disorders in 2016.
Researcher Joshua D. Rosenblat and colleagues identified eight randomized controlled trials that met their criteria for anti-inflammatory treatments of bipolar disorder. These treatments included nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs such as ibuprofen and aspirin), omega-3 fatty acids, the antioxidant N-acetylcysteine, and pioglitazone (used to treat diabetes). Overall, the anti-inflammatory treatments had a moderate and statistically significant antidepressant effects. No serious side effects were reported, and the anti-inflammatory treatments did not cause a switch into mania in any of the participants.
The diversity of the anti-inflammatory treatments reviewed in this meta-analysis limit the extent to which it can be interpreted, but it is clear that more research on anti-inflammatory treatments for bipolar depression is needed. An open question is whether patients with particularly elevated levels of inflammatory markers in their blood would respond better to these anti-inflammatory treatments.
In a recent study by researcher Dan V. Iosifescu and colleagues, the drug galantamine, which is used to treat dementia, did not improve cognitive function in euthymic people with bipolar disorder. The drug had done so in earlier studies. Seventy-two participants with bipolar disorder that was in remission were randomized to receive either a placebo or galantamine extended release for a period of two weeks. Doses of galantamine ranged from 8 to 24 mg/day.
The participants took several tests of attention and memory over the course of the study. After 16 weeks of treatment, those taking galantamine did not show significant improvements in functioning compared to those who received placebo.
This research was presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry.
In a symposium on inflammation’s role in psychiatric disorders at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, researcher Carmine Pariante reviewed the considerable literature indicating that major depression is often associated with measures of inflammation. Depression has been linked to elevated blood levels of the inflammatory proteins interleukin-1, interleukin-6, TNF alpha, and c-reactive protein, with about one-third of depressed patients having an elevated level of at least one of these proteins. People with elevated inflammatory markers are also less likely to respond to traditional antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Pariante reported that in depressed people, interleukin-6 is also elevated in cerebrospinal fluid in addition to blood, suggesting that inflammation in depression extends to the central nervous system. Increased secretion of interleukin-6 has been linked to depressive behaviors in mice exposed to stress.
There is some hope that anti-inflammatory treatments can help patients who do not respond to traditional antidepressant treatment. Some anti-inflammatory medications that may eventually be used to treat depression with inflammation include the COX-1 inhibitor aspirin, the COX-2 inhibitor celecoxib (Celebrex), or the antibiotic minocycline. Each of these approaches gained some support in preliminary clinical trials, but it has not yet been established that these anti-inflammatory treatments produce a better response in people with elevated inflammatory markers.
In a study by researcher Stuart Eisendrath and colleagues, people with treatment-resistant unipolar depression responded better to an intervention that combined mindfulness training with cognitive therapy than to one that included exercise, nutrition counseling, and music therapy.
The 173 participants had failed to respond to at least two different antidepressant medications. During the study period, all participants were taking an antidepressant, but none were receiving other types of therapy.
After eight weeks, the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) group showed greater improvement in their depression symptoms than the exercise and nutrition group. Of the MBCT group, 29.58% had a large reduction in symptoms, while 17.19% of the comparison group showed a similarly large reduction in symptoms.
A subgroup of the participants also received functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as part of the study. While completing a task related to emotional working memory, the MBCT group showed enhanced activation of the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (to levels seen in non-depressed people). This area is related to executive control of depression and memory functions. The MBCT group also showed reduced activation of the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex compared to the comparison group. Members of the MBCT whose depression symptoms had improved also showed better regulation of the amygdala during the task compared to the exercise and nutrition group.
The research was presented at the 2016 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.
A 2016 article by Heli Malm and colleagues in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests that in utero exposure to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants may increase the risk of depression in adolescence. However, the study included potentially confounding factors. It is possible that women who took SSRIs during pregnancy had more severe depression than those who went unmedicated during pregnancy. The mothers in the study who took SSRIs also had more comorbid conditions such as substance abuse.
Editor’s Note: Women should balance the risks and benefits of antidepressant use during pregnancy, since depression itself can have adverse effects on both mother and fetus. It has recently been established that SSRI use during pregnancy does not cause birth defects, so women with depression that has not responded to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as psychotherapy, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, exercise, mindfulness, and repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) may still want to consider SSRIs.
A new study suggests that women can continue using antipsychotic medications during the first trimester of pregnancy without meaningfully increasing the risk of birth defects in their offspring.
The study, by Krista F. Huybrechts and colleagues in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, looked at Medicaid users who filled at least one prescription for an antipsychotic medication during their first trimester of pregnancy, when an embryo’s vital organs are formed, and went on to have a live birth. Birth defects, including cardiac malformations, in these children were identified in the first 90 days after delivery and compared to the number of such abnormalities in the children of women on Medicaid who did not receive a prescription for an antipsychotic drug during the first trimester of pregnancy. The number of abnormalities was slightly higher in the children of women who had received atypical antipsychotics than in those who had not, and slightly lower in the children of women who had received a typical antipsychotic than in those who had not.
Huybrechts and colleagues concluded that taking an antipsychotic medication during the first trimester of pregnancy does not meaningfully increase the risk of birth defects in the offspring.
The children of women who took the antipsychotic risperidone did have a small increased risk of birth defects, including cardiac malformations. The researchers called for additional study of risperidone use during pregnancy.