Barbara Gracious of Ohio State University became interested in the inflammatory marker CRP through studying vitamin D3 deficiency. Vitamin D is a neurosteroid, and low levels of it have been associated with risk of schizophrenia, cardiovascular disease (heart attack), diabetes, mood disorders, cognitive deficits, autoimmune disease, and obesity. High CRP levels are related to low vitamin D, to obesity, and to other inflammatory markers such as IL-6 and TNF alpha.
Gracious measured these levels of CRP in 621 children participating in the Longitudinal Study of Manic Symptoms (LAMS), who were followed up for many years. She found that those with higher levels of CRP developed a mood episode approximately two years earlier than those with normal levels. CRP binds phosphocholine, which activates complement, a kind of protein that induces inflammation. CRP is elevated in 14% to 53% of patients with depression and anxiety.
Copeland et al. reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2012 that after a first depression, high CRP was associated with relapse. CRP also increases in adolescent females (who are at increased risk for depression).
Editor’s Note: These findings suggest the potential importance not only of using CRP as an indicator of depression risk, but also of targeting CRP levels in the hopes of reducing risk of a mood episode in children with elevated inflammatory markers. Supplementing vitamin D3 in those with low levels would be a good place to start, as would preventing or treating obesity and promoting good sleep hygiene and exercise. The potential role of medications with direct anti-inflammatory effects such as aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) or minocycline deserves further study.
Balanced diet, exercise, and good sleep habits may be easier said (or recommended) than done. Such lifestyle advice must be delivered with motivational interviewing, and instilled through practice, positive feedback, encouragement, and more practice. In children in general, and especially in those at high risk for a mood episode due to a family history of a unipolar or bipolar mood disorder, starting things off right from the outset with good diet, exercise, and sleep routines would be highly recommended. The benefits for long-term health and wellbeing could be enormous.
The results of good health behaviors may be mediated through several pathways. They could lessen inflammation and obesity, increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF, which is important for new synapses and long-term memory) and neurogenesis (both of which are increased by exercise), and even lengthen the telomeres that cap the ends of each strand of DNA (short ones are associated with a variety of medical and psychiatric illnesses).
At a symposium on ketamine for the treatment of depression in children at the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, David Brent, a professor at the University of Pittsburg, gave the opening talk on the fact that as many as 20% of adolescents who are depressed fail to improve, develop chronic illness, and are thus in need of alternatives to traditional treatment. Predictors of non-improvement include substance use, low-level manic symptoms, poor adherence to a medication regimen, low blood levels of antidepressants, family conflict, high levels of inflammation in the body, and importantly, maternal depression. In adolescents insomnia was associated with poor response, but in younger children insomnia was associated with a better response.
Brent suggested using melatonin and sleep-focused cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia in youth, but not using trazodone (which is commonly prescribed). Trazodone is converted to a compound called Meta-chlorophenylpiperazine or MCPP, which induces anxiety and dysphoria. MCPP is metabolized by hepatic enzymes 2D6, and fluoxetine and paroxetine inhibit 2D6, so if trazodone is combined with these antidepressants, the patient may get too much MCPP.
Surprisingly and contrary to some data in adults about the positive effects of therapy in those with abuse histories, in the study TORDIA (Treatment of SSRI-Resistant Depression in Adolescents), if youth with depression had experienced abuse in childhood, they did less well on the combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) compared to SSRIs alone.
Severe malnutrition in the first year of life even when corrected for the rest of a person’s life leaves a legacy of permanent cognitive deficits, marked deficits in attention, and increases in depression, conduct disorders, and medical disorders compared to carefully matched controls. Jamina Galler, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, gave a plenary talk at the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry on the long-term effects of even short-term childhood malnutrition, including marasmus (calorie deficiency) and kwashiorkor (protein deficiency).
Galler’s studies followed three generations of people born in Barbados and observed the consequences of prior malnutrition, which was completely eliminated in Barbados by 1980. The consequences of malnutrition in the first year of life not only affected the first (G1) generation, but subsequently their offspring in the G2 generation who also suffered an excess of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, low IQ, and low annual income into adulthood. That is, the early malnutrition had transgenerational effects.
Malnutrition is a huge problem worldwide and is especially bad in sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of Asia. Globally, malnutrition accounts for 50% of the deaths of children under age five. However, even in the US hunger is a problem for one in four children, or about 16 million individuals, and the long-term consequences of hunger remain to be further studied.
Studies in animals indicate that early malnutrition has epigenetic effects that can be passed on to four future generations before they are reversed. Epigenetic effects refer to environmental factors that cannot change the sequence of DNA, but change how easily it is transcribed by adding or taking away acetyl and methyl groups on DNA and histones, the structures around which DNA is wound. Malnutrition (defined as 6–8% casein, a type of protein, in the diet instead of the normal 25%) in rodents affects cognitive abilities and blood pressure and can lead to diabetes, obesity, and other metabolic abnormalities. The next generation is also affected because a previously malnourished mother huddles too much with her offspring, and they become obese as a result of these poor parenting skills. The second generation also exhibits epigenetic changes in the prefrontal cortex (such as too few glucocorticoid receptors due to methylation of the glucocorticoid promoter) and fewer neurons in the hippocampus.
Editor’s Note: Other data indicate similar long-lasting epigenetic and transgenerational effects of other types of childhood adversity, such as verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. These findings in humans are also paralleled by findings in animals, and give strong credence to the idea that the environment can have long-lasting effects on neurobiology and behavior via epigenetic effects that can be superimposed on whatever genetic effects are inherited.
Data from this editor (Robert Post) and colleagues on verbal abuse in childhood is striking; this supposedly less severe form of abuse is still associated with a more difficult course of bipolar disorder and an increase in medical comorbidities. Thus, the experience of early abuse, even just verbal abuse, appears to have long-lasting consequences for psychiatric and medical health into adulthood.
In a 2013 study of children by Luby et al. in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, poverty in early childhood was associated with smaller white and gray matter in the cortex and with smaller volume of the amygdala and hippocampus when the children reached school age. The effects of poverty on hippocampal volume were mediated by whether the children experienced stressful life events and whether a caregiver was supportive or hostile.
The children were recruited from primary care and day care settings between the ages of three and six, and were studied for five to ten years. They were initially assessed annually for three to six years and information on psychosocial, behavioral, and developmental dimensions were collected. Then the children took part in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan and continued annual assessments that included information such as whether the children experienced stressful life events.
Previous research has shown that poverty affects children’s psychosocial development and economic success in adulthood. This research shows that poverty also affects brain development. The findings suggest important targets for intervention that could help prevent these developmental deficits.
Evidence is growing that stressful events in childhood are associated with an earlier onset of bipolar disorders and a more difficult course of illness than in those who did not experience this type of adversity. Monica Aas and colleagues in Norway have found for the first time that emotional abuse in childhood, especially before age five, also increases risk of bipolar disorder. This study indicates that while bipolar disorder has a genetic component, environmental factors also play a role.
In Norway and France, the research group surveyed patients with bipolar disorder and people in the general population about childhood trauma, including emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional neglect, and physical neglect. Among the almost 800 participants, patients with bipolar disorder were twice as likely as control participants to have experienced multiple types of trauma. However, emotional abuse was the only factor specifically linked to bipolar disorder. People who were emotionally abused in childhood were more than twice as likely to develop bipolar disorder in adulthood. Moreover, the more severe the emotional abuse, the more likely it was that a child would go on to develop bipolar disorder.
Among the adults with bipolar disorder, emotional abuse and sexual abuse in childhood predicted younger age of illness onset, more suicide attempts, more rapid cycling, and greater proneness to depression. Emotional or sexual abuse were linked to the most suicide attempts, and sexual abuse was linked to rapid cycling.
More trauma in childhood was also linked to affective instability in adults. Aas’ research was presented at the 14th International Congress on Schizophrenia Research.
At a symposium celebrating the retirement of Willem Nolen, a researcher who spent 40 years studying unipolar and bipolar disorder, from his position at Groningen Hospital in the Netherlands, this editor (Robert Post) discussed progress in the treatment of bipolar disorder over the past 40 years. Despite the availability of lithium; many new mood stabilizers (carbamazepine, valproate, lamotrigine); and many atypical antipsychotics, all of which are anti-manic and some of which are antidepressant (quetiapine and lurasidone), there is still a very high rate of continued illness and treatment resistance, especially in the US.
In fact, research from the Bipolar Collaborative Network, a treatment research network including sites around the US (one run by this editor) and in Germany and the Netherlands, shows that almost everything about bipolar disorder is worse in the US. Americans have more genetic vulnerability because more of their parents have bipolar disorder, and they are more likely to have environmental vulnerability as a result of childhood adversity. Patients in the US also reported having had more stressors at the onset of their illness and more stressors prior to the last episode they had before entering the network at an average age of 40.
Age at illness onset is much lower in the US than in the Netherlands and Germany. About two-thirds of American patients had onset in childhood or adolescence (under 19 years), while only about one-third of the European patients in this study showed these early onsets.
The course of illness is also more difficult in the US. There is more anxiety, substance abuse, and medical comorbidity, and there are more episodes and more rapid cycling. All this resulted in more US patients than European ones who did not respond to naturalistic treatment in our treatment network despite being prescribed multiple medications.
The implication of these data is that we need a new and more concerted approach to bipolar disorder in the US, beginning with early diagnosis and treatment during childhood and adolescence, instead of the 10- to 15-year average delay that was typical about twenty years ago. The duration of the delay to first treatment with a drug to treat mania or depression was an independent predictor of a worse outcome in adulthood. Early intervention should also include therapy and education.
Family-Focused Treatment (FFT), a method pioneered by researchers David Miklowitz and Kiki Chang, has been shown to be much more effective than treatment as usual in children who are at high risk for developing bipolar disorder because they have a family history of the illness and symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder or bipolar not otherwise specified (BP-NOS). In this way it may even be possible to head off the full-blown illness before it starts in those children at highest risk.
In adults with bipolar disorder, adversity in childhood has been associated with an earlier onset of bipolar disorder compared to those who did not experience some form of adversity such as verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, loss of a parent, abandonment, or neglect. At the 2013 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, Nancy Low et al. reported that the number of these stressful life events a child experienced was associated with the number of their anxiety symptoms, psychiatric disorders, and lifetime substance abuse. Having experienced 3 or more adversities was associated with a 3.5-fold increased risk for developing a mood disorder and a 3-fold increase in anxiety disorders and alcohol or drug abuse.
While the study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, the abstract (#194) may be found in the meeting supplement, Volume 73, Number 9S of the journal Biological Psychiatry.
Editor’s Note: Low’s study is the first to report that childhood adversity is a risk factor for the onset of bipolar disorder in the general population.
Given the increasing evidence for the persistence of epigenetic marks on DNA and histones (which can’t change the sequence of genes but can change their structure) in those who have experienced such stressors in childhood, this could provide a mechanism for the long-term vulnerability of these children to the development of mood disorders and a variety of physical illnesses.
Depression in a parent is one of the factors that best predicts whether a young person will develop depression. Since depression symptoms can vary greatly from person to person and some symptoms are known to be more heritable than others, new research is investigating whether a parent’s profile of symptoms affects their child’s likelihood of developing the illness. A 2013 study by Mars et al. in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry suggests that loss of appetite or weight in a parent with depression is the symptom that most strongly predicts new onset of depression and depressive symptoms in their offspring.
The study observed 337 parent-child pairs. The parents (mostly mothers), who had a history of recurrent unipolar depression, ranged in age from 25–55 years, and their children ranged from 9–17 years. The study lasted four years, during which the families participated in three assessments. Parents’ symptoms were recorded and children were also assessed for symptoms or new development of depression. Thirty percent of the offspring whose parents reported weight loss or low appetite were found to have new onset of depression at followup, compared to nine percent of the offspring whose parents did not have these symptoms.
There are nine symptoms used to diagnose depression in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders: low mood, loss of interest (anhedonia), loss of energy, change in appetite or weight, change in sleep, low self-esteem or guilt, suicidality, psychomotor slowing (retardation), and loss of concentration or indecisiveness. Of these, parental loss of appetite or weight was the only symptom that predicted depression in a child. Interestingly, the severity of parental depression or the presence of other health problems in the parent did not account for the emergence of illness in the children.
In research published since 2008, our Editor-in-Chief Robert M. Post and colleagues in the Bipolar Collaborative Network have compared patients with bipolar disorder in the United States to those in Germany and the Netherlands. Compared to the European sample, patients in the US have more genetic vulnerability to bipolar disorder (by having a parent with bipolar disorder), earlier onsets of their illness, more complicated courses of illness, greater treatment resistance, and more medical comorbidities. Patients in the US also have more psychosocial stress.
The researchers are now turning their attention to these psychosocial vulnerabilities, and in a new paper that will be published in Psychiatry Research (late in 2013 or early in 2014), the authors show that patients in the US had more stressors both in childhood and just prior to the onset of their illness. Childhood stressors analyzed in the study were verbal abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. Stressors in adulthood included indicators of a lack of social support, troubles with finances or employment, lack of access to health care, and medical comorbidities.
The stressors patients experienced just prior to their most recent episode of bipolar illness were related to: stressors in childhood, an earlier age of illness onset, anxiety and substance abuse comorbidity, lower income, both parents having an affective illness such as depression, and feeling more stigma.
The new research suggests that for patients with bipolar disorder in the US, adverse life events in childhood and later in life are more prevalent than they are for patients in the Netherlands or Germany. Earlier and more effective approaches to these stressors, such as the Family-Focused Therapy developed by David Miklowitz and Kiki Chang, could potentially slow the onset or progression of bipolar illness in this country.
Zolpidem, better known by one of its trade names, Ambien, is widely prescribed for the short-term treatment of insomnia. It can sometimes cause adverse reactions, particularly among women and the elderly. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has reported that over a recent 5-year period, emergency department visits for adverse reactions to zolpidem increased by almost 220%.
Peter Delaney, Director of SAMSHA’s Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, suggested that doctors should consider alternative strategies for treating insomnia, including improving sleep hygiene by avoiding caffeine, exercising regularly, and sleeping in a quiet, dark room. He also suggested that doctors should be aware of what other medications a patient is taking, and ideally all of a patient’s prescriptions should be collected from the same pharmacy, so the pharmacist can act as a second pair of eyes identifying possible drug interactions.
Women and men metabolize zolpidem differently, and according to Sam Fleishman of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, many women can still be impaired by the drug 8 hours after taking it. In 2013, after reports of adverse reactions to zolpidem increased, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) required manufacturers of drugs containing zolpidem to reduce the recommended dose for women by half, from 10 mg to 5 mg, or 12.5 mg to 6.25 mg for the extended-release version. The FDA also suggested halving the dosage prescribed to the elderly, and reducing the recommended dose for men.
Some of the adverse reactions to drugs containing zolpidem include daytime drowsiness, dizziness, hallucinations, sleepwalking, and even “sleep driving.” When combined with antianxiety medications, narcotic pain relievers, or alcohol, zolpidem’s sedative effects can be enhanced to dangerous levels.