In a recent study comparing the efficacy of lithium and the second-generation antipsychotic quetiapine, the drugs had remarkably similar results. Researcher Andrew Nierenberg et al. presented the results at the 2014 meeting of the American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology. In the 6-month study called CHOICE (Clinical Health Outcome Initiative Comparative Effectiveness), 482 patients received either lithium or quetiapine in addition to other medications in a manner consistent with clinical practice. For the purposes of the study, those receiving lithium could not receive quetiapine or another antipsychotic, and those receiving quetiapine could not receive lithium or another antipsychotic, but both groups could receive other types of adjunctive medications.
By the end of the 6-month study period, most patients had improved substantially, but only about a quarter of each group became truly well. The researchers suggest that patients may need a longer period of treatment or other interventions such as psychotherapy or combination treatment. Clinicians were told to use the maximum dose of lithium or quetiapine that each patient could tolerate. Mean maximum doses were 1007.5mg of lithium and 344.9mg of quetiapine.
One surprise for the researchers was that 24% of lithium patients and 27% of quetiapine patients required no other medications and improved on monotherapy.
While results were very similar for two drugs, lithium produced slightly greater side effects and produced slightly better results in patients with anxiety. This may have been due to those patients also receiving benzodiazepines, and the researchers are analyzing data to see whether the patients with anxiety did indeed receive this kind of adjunctive treatment. Quetiapine was slightly better in patients who had more manic symptoms.
In another surprise finding, patients with bipolar II disorder fared better overall than patients with bipolar I disorder. Patients with higher suicide risk did worse than those with lower suicide risk.
Bipolar illness affects 4.5% of the US population. According to researcher Kathleen Merikangas, 1.0% have bipolar I disorder, 1.1% have bipolar II disorder, and the remainder have subthreshold symptoms. Mark Frye, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic, gave a lecture on antidepressants in bipolar illness at the 2014 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.
The newest data from meta-analyses indicate that traditional antidepressants that are effective in unipolar depression are not effective in bipolar depression. Some patient groups, especially those with very early onset depression and mixed depression, are at increased risk of switching into mania and making a suicide attempt while taking antidepressants.
Unipolar depressed patients with a genetic variation that produces a short form of the serotonin transporter (5HT-LPRs/s) are at increased risk for depression in adulthood following a history of childhood adversity, and tend to respond less well to antidepressants. Frye found that 5HT-LPRs/s is weakly associated with switching into mania when antidepressants are given to patients with bipolar depression.
At the same symposium, researcher Mike Gitlin reviewed data on combination therapy, which is rapidly becoming the norm, indicating that in most circumstances, it is superior to monotherapy.
Researcher David Miklowitz reviewed the impressive data on the superiority of most forms of targeted psychotherapy or psychoeducation compared to treatment as usual for bipolar depression. He noted his own finding that Family Focused Therapy (FFT) not only is effective in adolescents and adults with bipolar disorder, but also in reducing illness and dysfunction in those with prodromal disorders (such as depression, cyclothymia, and bipolar not otherwise specified) in situations where there is a family history of bipolar disorder.
Eight components of FFT are:
- Recognition of prodromal symptoms and development of treatment strategies for them.
- Recognition and management of stress and triggers using cognitive restructuring.
- Development of a relapse prevention plan and rehearsal of what to do.
- Regularization of sleep.
- Encouragement of treatment adherence with an eye to a good future.
- Enhancement of emotional self-regulation skills, including cognitive restructuring.
- Improvement of family relationships and communication.
- Education about substance abuse avoidance and treatment for that and other comorbidities.
Many of these are also key components of group psychoeducation, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and interpersonal and social rhythms therapy, and all of these are effective in treating and preventing bipolar depression compared to treatment as usual. It is noteworthy that in the research of Francesc Colom, 90% of patients randomized to treatment as usual relapsed within 24 months, while psychoeducation was highly effective in preventing relapses over the next five years.
This editor (Robert M. Post), the discussant for the symposium, emphasized that the main take-away messages of the speakers were: use more lithium, use more caution and fewer antidepressants in treating bipolar depression, use more combination therapy for acute illness and for maintenance, and definitely use more psychotherapy. Read more
We reported in BNN Volume 17, Issue 6 in 2013 on researchers’ efforts to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder using the drug ketamine. This research by Adriana Feder et al. has now been published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
In the study of 41 patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, patients showed a greater reduction in symptoms 24 hours after receiving intravenous (IV) ketamine than after taking IV midazolam, a benzodiazepine used as an active placebo control because it produces anti-anxiety and sedating effects similar to ketamine’s. The patients ranged in age from 18 to 55 years of age and were free of other medication for two weeks before the study. Ketamine was also associated with reduction in depressive symptoms and with general clinical improvement, and side effects were minimal.
At the 2014 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, David G. Brock et al. reported that 41 of 67 depressed patients achieved remission (61.2%) after acute treatment with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation without other medication. After three months of continuation treatment in which patients either received one maintenance TMS session per month or were simply observed, 10 of the 16 receiving active TMS continuation (62.5%) did not relapse, while 7 of the 16 who were only observed (43.8%) did not relapse. While this was not a statistically significant difference, it suggests that continuation TMS should be studied further.
Andrew Leuchter et al. reported that synchronized transcranial magnetic stimulation (sTMS) at a patient’s individual alpha frequency (IAF) was more effective than sham treatment in those with prior treatment resistance (34.2% vs 8.3%) but not different from sham treatment in depressed patients who had never received treatment.
Editor’s Note: This would be important if replicated, as patients with high levels of treatment resistance do not tend to respond well to regular rTMS given at 10Hz and not matched to a patient’s alpha frequency.
RTMS Reduced Smoking
Dinur-Klein Limor reported that 10 Hz (but not 1 Hz) repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) over the left pre-frontal cortex decreased cigarette consumption when given in combination with a smoking cue.
In a special symposium on bipolar disorder at the 2014 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, researcher Mike Bauer reviewed a new meta-analysis that showed lithium not only has significant effects in preventing manias, but also depressions. Researcher Geddes et al. had, in a previous study called BALANCE, found that lithium was superior to valproate (Depakote). Together these findings led Bauer to the conclusion that lithium is under-used in the treatment of bipolar disorder, especially in the US, where lithium is prescribed less often than valproate.
An article by researcher Kessing in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2012 relied on naturalistic follow up data and also showed that lithium was superior to valproate in preventing hospitalizations.
A study by researcher Willem Nolen indicated that in mono-therapy, levels of lithium in the blood needed to be 0.6 meq/L or higher in order for lithium to work better than placebo. Lithium augmentation that produced lower blood levels of 0.3 meq/L was not significant on its main outcome measure of preventing new episodes. However, compared to treatment as usual, those randomized to lithium used lower doses of atypical antipsychotics, and other data indicated that these patients had fewer suicide attempts and increased hippocampal volume.
Bauer noted that lithium-related goiter and low thyroid are easily treated, and that kidney damage while taking lithium can be prevented by avoiding episodes of lithium intoxication. It is easy to conclude that lithium should be used more often, especially given its positive effects against suicide and brain gray matter and hippocampal volume loss.
Vilazodone (Viibryd) was approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) as an antidepressant in 2011. The drug is a serotonin 5-HT reuptake inhibitor and a partial agonist of the serotonin 5-HT1A receptor like the anti-anxiety drug buspirone (Buspar). Neither buspirone nor vilazodone is associated with significant sexual dysfunction, unlike most of the antidepressants that only inhibit the serotonin transporter (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs). Researcher Leslie Citrome et al. reported at the 2014 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association that at 40mg/day, the rate of remission was 32% on vilazodone versus 20% on placebo.
At the same meeting, researcher Carl Gommoll et al. reported on vilazodone’s side effects. The drug was generally well-tolerated. Side effects that occurred in 5% or more of the patients taking vilazodone and half as many taking placebo included diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and insomnia.
Psychotherapy More Effective Than Collaborative Care in Bipolar Depression with Anxiety Disorder Comorbidity
The Systematic Treatment Enhancement Program for Bipolar Disorder (STEP-BD), a long-term study of treatments for bipolar disorder, recently found that psychotherapy was more effective than their normal collaborative care model (consisting of regular illness evaluation and treatment) for patients with bipolar disorder and a current or lifetime presence of an anxiety disorder.
An anxiety disorder comorbidity is consistently associated with a poor outcome in patients with bipolar disorder. In a 2014 article by Deckersbach et al. in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the STEP-BD research group reported that the effect of psychotherapy was particularly strong in those with comorbid post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or generalized anxiety disorder.
While antidepressants are typically used to treat anxiety disorders in unipolar depression, this has not been proven effective in bipolar disorder. Not only do patients with bipolar disorder tend to respond poorly to antidepressants, but in research collected by this editor Robert Post and colleagues in the Bipolar Collaborative Network, patients with bipolar disorder who had an anxiety disorder fared even more poorly on antidepressants as adjuncts to mood stabilizers than those with bipolar disorder without an accompanying anxiety disorder.
The poor response to antidepressants in bipolar depression in general, and particularly in those with a comorbid anxiety disorder, together with the finding that psychotherapy is highly effective, suggest that adjunctive psychotherapy is a more appropriate choice for patients with bipolar depression and a comorbid anxiety disorder.
The choice of the best pharmacological treatment of this comorbid anxiety disorder deserves specific comparative study. Candidates would include the mood stabilizing anticonvulsants valproate, lamotrigine, and carbamazepine; the atypical antipsychotics with efficacy in bipolar depression (quetiapine, lurasidone, and olanzapine combined with fluoxetine); and those used as an adjunct in unipolar depression (quetiapine again and aripiprazole).
There is mounting evidence that medication alone is not enough to bring about full remission in bipolar disorder. At the 2014 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, researcher T.A. Batista et al. presented evidence that psychoeducation combined with medication may be more helpful than medication alone. In the research team’s randomized controlled study of 30 patients with bipolar I or bipolar II disorder, eight weekly home visits that included both pharmacotherapy and psychoeducation produced more favorable results than eight weekly visits with pharmacotherapy alone. Those patients who received psychoeducation had reduced depression scores and increased medication adherence compared to the others.
Editor’s Note: There are now about a dozen controlled studies indicating the efficacy of psychoeducation. It is time that systematic delivery of psychoeducation, either in a private practice setting, a clinic, or the home environment, become a mandatory part of the treatment of bipolar disorder.
Researchers Vieta and Colom of Barcelona have some of the best positive longitudinal data on psychoeducation versus treatment as usual and find benefits lasting five years or more. Key components of psychoeducation include learning about disease course and medications, developing a careful monitoring system, and recognition of early signs and symptoms of an impending manic or depressive episode, and key drug treatment maneuvers that could be instituted should such early warning signs develop.
Psychotherapy can play an important role in treating mental illness. At the 2014 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, researcher F. Colom gave a plenary talk indicating that just like pharmacotherapy, psychotherapy should differ depending on characteristics of the illness—both its severity and whether the patient has more manic or more depressive symptoms.
For less severe illness with more depression, Colom explained that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is ideal.
Psychoeducation and family focused therapy (FFT) is recommended for intermediate severity, with a focus on maintaining remission. Family focused therapy also works for early (prodromal) symptoms, as reported by researcher David Miklowitz et al. in 2013.
Lars Kessing et al. recently reported that specialty treatment in a clinic (including psychoeducation and vigilance to breakthrough symptoms that may suggest a new episode is imminent) is highly effective following a first episode of mania.
For more severe illness, Colom recommends cognitive remediation and rehabilitation to decrease illness burden and increase functioning. Functional remediation focuses on communication, includes homework, and teaches skills such as how to deal with money, time, and organization. It also helps improve social cognition.
For the most severe illness, palliative care to relieve symptoms and decrease illness impact is recommended. Colom noted that cognitive behavioral therapy is less effective with patients who have experienced more than 12 episodes (reported by Jan Scott et al. in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2006), as is psychoeducation (Renares et al. 2010, Colom et al. 2014). These data re-emphasize the importance of early intervention, when these psychotherapeutic approaches are more helpful. Colom stresses the importance of behavioral cognitive therapy (BCT) rather than cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for those late in the illness whose episodes often arrive spontaneously, unprecipitated by psychosocial stress, and one needs more behavioral approaches to the brain’s habit memory system located in the striatum, which may drive highly recurrent illness.
Lithium is known for protecting neurons by inducing neurotrophic factors and inhibiting cell death factors. In a new study, other mood-stabilizing drugs had similar neuroprotective and neurotrophic effects on cultured neurons from the hippocampus.
At the 2014 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, CH Lee et al. presented evidence that lithium, carbamazepine, valproic acid, and lamotrigine all increase the outgrowth of dendrites from these cultured neurons. Therapeutic levels of these drugs increased the production of proteins like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), postsynaptic density protein-95 (PSD-95), neurolignin 1 (NLG 1), beta-neurexin, and synaptophysin. However, so far only lithium has been shown to increase the volume of the human hippocampus as measured with MRI.