Research continues on pioglitazone, a drug typically used to treat diabetes but with other positive effects on depression and stroke risk. Some researchers are working on determining whether the drug increases the risk of developing certain cancers, including bladder, prostate, and pancreatic cancers. A recent study by James D. Lewis and colleagues in the journal JAMA found no statistically significant increase in risk of bladder cancer among patients taking the drug, but the researchers said they also couldn’t rule out that the drug may increase this risk, as has been seen in previous studies. The study by Lewis did show an increase in pancreatic and prostate cancers in patients taking pioglitazone, but the researchers did not determine whether this was caused by the drug.
Another recent study by Walter N. Kernan and colleagues in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that pioglitazone reduced the incidence of stroke and heart attack in patients with a history of stroke or blocked blood vessels in the brain but without a diagnosis of diabetes. Patients who received pioglitazone also experienced side effects including weight gain, edema (an increase in fluids in the body’s tissues) and serious bone fractures.
Pioglitazone has had positive effects in bipolar depression and may one day be used as a treatment for bipolar disorder. For now, it may be worthy of consideration for the treatment of diabetes in patients who also have bipolar depression.
There is no perfect treatment to reduce the risk of suicide in someone who is considering it. Antidepressants can reduce suicidal ideation, but they take several weeks to start working. Intravenous ketamine is used at higher doses as an anesthetic, but in low doses works quickly to reduce suicidal thoughts. However, it requires repeated infusions to keep working. Researchers led by Yoram Yovell are exploring another option: ultra-low doses of the opioid buprenorphine.
In a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2015, Yovell and colleagues compared low-dose buprenorphine to placebo in 62 patients with no history of substance abuse who had been contemplating suicide for a week or more. Many had attempted suicide before, and more than half met the criteria for borderline personality disorder.
Buprenorphine was administered under the tongue, in doses of 0.1 mg once or twice a day. The researchers used these low doses to minimize the side effects of a drug that could potentially be addictive. Those randomized to receive buprenorphine saw greater reductions in suicidal ideation compared to those who received placebo, both after two weeks and after four weeks.
Use of antidepressants did not affect the likelihood that patients would respond to buprenorphine. The researchers suggest that buprenorphine specifically treats suicidal thoughts, rather than improving depression in general.
Patients with borderline personality disorder, who are often unresponsive to medication, also saw improvement in suicidal ideation after taking buprenorphine, suggesting that the opioid treated a particular symptom of their disorder—sensitivity to feelings of separation from the people with whom they are close.
Patients did not experience withdrawal when they discontinued buprenorphine. Side effects included fatigue, nausea, dry mouth, and constipation. Patients who started out taking 0.2 mg per day were much more likely to drop out than those who started at 0.1 mg per day.
There is another reason the researchers used very low doses. A potential benefit to ultra-low–dose buprenorphine is that even a week’s supply of the drug would not produce a dangerous overdose, so patients could potentially be prescribed a week’s worth of medication to take at home instead of in an inpatient setting.
Buprenorphine is not recommended for patients with a history of substance abuse. The study only explored short-term use of the drug, and replication studies are needed to clarify its effects.
The hormone oxytocin, best known for creating feelings of love and bonding, may help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, since it also reduces anxiety. A study by Saskia B.J. Koch and colleagues that will soon be published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology reports that a single intranasal administration of oxytocin (at a dose of 40 IU) reduced anxiety and nervousness more than did placebo among police officers with PTSD.
Oxytocin also improved abnormalities in connectivity of the amygdala. Male participants with PTSD showed reduced connectivity between the right centromedial amygdala and the left ventromedial prefrontal cortex compared to other male participants who had also experienced trauma but did not have PTSD. This deficit was corrected in the men with PTSD after they received a dose of oxytocin. Female participants with PTSD showed greater connectivity between the right basolateral amygdala and the bilateral dorsal anterior cingulate cortex than female participants who had experienced trauma but did not have PTSD. This was also restored to normal following a dose of oxytocin.
These findings suggest that oxytocin can not only reduce subjective feelings of anxiety in people with PTSD, but may also normalize the way fear is expressed in the amygdala.
Vitamin D3 tends to be low in children and adolescents with mania, but supplements may help. In a small open study published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology in 2015, Elif M. Sikoglu and colleagues administered 2000 IU of vitamin D3 per day to youth aged 6–17 for eight weeks. Sixteen of the participants had bipolar spectrum disorders (including subthreshold symptoms) and were exhibiting symptoms of mania. Nineteen participants were typically developing youth.
At the beginning of the study, the youth with bipolar spectrum disorders had lower levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in the anterior cingulate cortex than did the typically developing youth. Following the eight weeks of vitamin D3 supplementation, mania and depression symptoms both decreased in the youth with bipolar spectrum disorders, and GABA in the anterior cingulate cortex increased in these participants.
Editor’s Note: GABA dysfunction has been implicated in the manic phase of bipolar disorder. While larger controlled studies of vitamin D supplementation are needed, given the high incidence of vitamin D deficiency in youth in the US, testing and treating these deficiencies is important, especially among kids with symptoms of bipolar illness.
Chronic fatigue syndrome, or Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease (SEID), as it is now known, is characterized by extreme fatigue that cannot be explained by any underlying illness. Doctors have long disagreed over how it should be treated, particularly about whether or not exercise should be encouraged. A new small study of adolescents suggests that anti-viral medications can reduce fatigue.
The 2014 article by Theodore A. Henderson in Advanced Mind Body Medicine reports that among 15 adolescents who reported chronic fatigue symptoms, 1000 mg/day of the antiviral valacyclovir (trade name Valtrex) led to improvement in 86% of the patients by 3 months, and 92% of the patients by 5 months. One patient dropped out due to nausea. Symptoms of fatigue, exertion-induced malaise, excessive sleep, napping, unrefreshing sleep, headaches, cognitive symptoms, and emotional symptoms all improved after treatment with the antiviral. Several previous studies have also shown positive effects of antiviral treatments in patients with chronic fatigue.
Many studies have linked depression and cardiovascular problems. The solutions may also be linked. A new study found that patients with depression and acute coronary syndrome saw their depression improve most when they took the selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant escitalopram and statins (used to lower cholesterol), while depression improved least among patients who took neither type of drug. Statin use was linked to improvement in depression after one year, while escitalopram was not. In a subset of the study, use of lipophilic statins in particular was linked to improvement in depression.
The study, published in 2015 by S.W. Kim and colleagues in the journal Translational Psychiatry, suggests that statins can improve depression regardless of antidepressant use, but combining statins with an SSRI may have an even more powerful effect on depression.
In 2015 Claudia Chauvet and colleagues reported in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology that the brain-penetrating statins simvastatin and Atorvastatin reduced cocaine seeking behaviors in mice that were taught to self-administer cocaine and then were denied access to it for 21 days compared to pravastatin, a statin that does not penetrate the brain as thoroughly. The researchers found that the brain-penetrating statins also reduced nicotine seeking, but not food reward seeking. The statins also worked in mice that had stopped seeking cocaine but relapsed due to stress, allowing them to abstain from cocaine seeking again.
Statins are considered a very safe treatment in humans. The ability of statins to prevent relapse to addictions in mice may mean that one day they could be used to treat addictions in people as well. A review article by Cassie Redlich and colleagues in the journal BMC Psychiatry in 2014 indicated that statins may reduce recurrence of depression in people. The researchers found that simvastatin had a protective effect while Atorvastatin was associated with increased risk of depression, so the choice of statins may be important for both depression and addiction.
A study by researcher J.H. Newcorn and colleagues published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2013 found that eight weeks of treatment with the drug guanfacine (extended release) improved symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in North American children compared to placebo. A 2015 study by M.A. Stein and colleagues in the journal CNS Drugs extended this research, determining that guanfacine also improved academic and social functioning, including family dynamics, in the same group of children.
Children aged 6–12 who had been diagnosed with ADHD received either placebo or 1 to 4 mg of guanfacine extended release either in the morning or evening. The children in both guanfacine groups showed improvements in family interactions, learning and school, social behavior, and risky behavior compared to those taking placebo. No improvements were seen in life skills or self-concept. The improvements in functioning were linked to the drug’s effectiveness in improving ADHD symptoms. Those children whose ADHD symptoms improved on guanfacine were also more likely to see improvements in academic and social functioning.
People with disorders on the schizophrenia spectrum often suffer cognition problems that affect skills such as the processing of information about people and social situations (social cognition) and the execution of plans (executive function). At the 2015 meeting of the Society for Biological Psychiatry, researcher Larry J. Siever reported that the drug guanfacine improved these types of thinking in people with disorders on the schizophrenic spectrum compared to placebo. Participants were enrolled in a 7.5-week training program to improve cognition.
In a recent BNN article on potential drugs for memory loss, we omitted two conventional classes of drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s Disease—acetylcholine esterase inhibitors (AChE-Is) and the blocker of glutamate NMDA receptors memantine (Namenda). This was intentional, as we hoped to suggest possible approaches prior to the use of these drugs for full-blown dementia. However, we neglected to cite a 1999 study by Fred Jacobsen in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry that indicated that the AChE-I drug donepezil (Aricept) was effective in improving drug-induced memory dysfunction in patients without dementia. Side effects included insomnia, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Jacobsen has used AChE-Is to improve memory in over 80 patients with unipolar or bipolar depression, aged 19-85. In a 2016 personal communication to the BNN, he indicated that doses of 5mg/day are typically enough to improve memory. Higher doses of 10mg/day may be more effective, but increase the risk of switching into mania for patients with bipolar depression. Some of Jacobsen’s patients have used AChE-I drugs for 10–15 years without the drugs losing effectiveness. For some patients, Jacobsen has switched from prescribing donezepil to prescribing rivastigmine (Exelon or Exelon patch), which he finds they can more easily tolerate.
We should also remind readers of the BNN of our previous report on memantine (Namenda) for bipolar depressed patients with cognitive impairment. We wrote, “In an abstract presented at the 67th Annual Meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry in 2012, Dan V. Iosifescu reported that in a randomized 12-week study in which the anti-Alzheimer’s drug memantine was given to 72 euthymic bipolar subjects experiencing cognitive deficits, the drug was associated with improvement in spatial and working memory, verbal and episodic memory, and other indices that included measurements of attention and language skills. In conjunction with this treatment, a subgroup of subjects had increases in left hippocampal NAA (a measure of neuronal viability) and increases in choline in the right hippocampus. The initial improvements in these neuropsychological test results remained over 12 weeks of open follow-up.”
In an earlier proof-of-concept study published in the journal CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics in 2009, Iosifescu had also reported that among nineteen subjects with bipolar disorder that was in remission, but who had residual cognitive deficits, open-label treatment with the AChE-I galantamine (extended release) at doses of 8–24 mg/day led to improvement in those cognitive symptoms after 4 months.