People with major mental disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are at increased risk for medical symptoms including overweight, obesity, high cholesterol or triglycerides, diabetes, and the metabolic syndrome, all of which increase risk of cardiovascular disease (heart attack), cerebrovascular disease (or strokes), and other medical difficulties. In a 2013 review article in the journal Bipolar Disorders, researcher Chittaranjan Andrade discussed the use of statins to prevent cardiovascular events in people with major mental disorders.
Statins decrease lipids, and have significant benefits in decreasing cardiac events, but their use is low among psychiatric populations. Psychiatric patients often receive less cardiac care. It may be up to their psychiatrists to push for aggressive prevention of cardiac illnesses.
The most significant side effect of statins is the possibility that they can increase risk of diabetes. In a meta-analysis by Preiss et al., intensive dosing with statins increased the risk of diabetes but also lowered the risk of cardiovascular events. In a year, 1,000 patients would get two extra cases of diabetes but 6.5 fewer cases of cardiovascular events. For patients at high risk for heart attack or stroke, a cardiovascular event is more dangerous than diabetes, so it makes sense to treat these patients with statins. In patients at lower risk, there is some evidence that diabetes risk was a problem mostly in patients with other risk factors for diabetes, including metabolic syndrome, impaired fasting glucose levels, a body mass index of 30 kg/m2 or higher, or glycated haemoglobin A (1c) above 6%.
Most studies of statins are conducted on patients in middle age, but there is a rationale for treating even younger patients with statins. Patients with bipolar disorder develop cardiovascular disease more than a decade earlier than controls. There is some evidence that cholesterol deposits in arteries begin even before age 20, and are cumulative. The risk-benefit ratio for statin use improves with years of use, so starting it earlier may lead to better prevention. Long-term use may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease and some cancers in addition to reducing heart attacks and strokes.
Despite the risk of diabetes, it is important to consider statin use in psychiatric patients, especially those who receive antipsychotic medications. Read more
A recent twin study suggests that the genes that confer risk for bipolar disorder may also be associated with verbal ability and sociability. Considerable evidence has suggested that people with bipolar disorder have greater intelligence and creativity than the normal population. Positive qualities like these may make people with bipolar disorder attractive mates, leading to the continued propagation of genes that promote bipolar disorder. (One might expect lower than normal rates of reproduction in people with bipolar disorder due to the difficulties the illness creates, as occurs with schizophrenia, but people with bipolar disorder have normal rates of reproduction, suggesting that any obstacles to mating are balanced by other particularly attractive qualities.)
Researchers led by Rachel G. Higier used a Swedish registry of twins to investigate whether people with bipolar disorder and their fraternal or identical twins without the illness have better verbal ability and sociability. Bipolar patients and their twins (who would be expected to have similar genetic and familial risks but without the negative impact of the illness and medications for it) were compared to patients with schizophrenia and their twins and normal controls. The well twins of bipolar patients scored higher on a scale of positive temperament than the bipolar patients, schizophrenia patients and their twins, and controls. The twins of bipolar patients also scored better than schizophrenia patients and their twins and controls on tests of verbal learning and fluency, while the bipolar patients showed lower levels of cognitive function (likely due to their illness).
The researchers conclude that the genes that put families at risk for bipolar disorder also confer positive traits like verbal ability and positive temperament that make people with bipolar disorder attractive mates. Even though bipolar disorder may reduce these traits somewhat, people with the illness still are more creative than the general population and often very successful.
In a poster at the 2014 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researcher Larissa Portnoff reported that NF-kB, a marker of inflammation that can be measured in two types of white blood cells (lymphocytes and monocytes), was significantly elevated in adolescents who had bipolar disorder compared to healthy control participants.
Several other inflammatory markers have been linked to bipolar disorder, including c-reactive protein (CRP) and TNF alpha. The new data about NF-kB suggests that another inflammatory pathway is overactive in the disorder. NF-kB levels did not correlate with the severity of manic or depressive symptoms, as do levels of some other inflammatory markers.
Researcher Amanda Roten reported at the 2014 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry that adolescents who stopped heavy marijuana use showed improvements in multiple areas of learning and memory. These data support previous findings that pot can cause impairments in cognitive functioning, but that abstaining from the drug can bring about improvement relative quickly.
These data contrast with some others. A 2009 study by J. Jacobus et al. in the journal Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior suggested that some changes in brain structure resulting from marijuana use, such as decreases in cortical volume, can persist for one to three months following abstinence.
Madeline Meier, another researcher at the meeting, reported that 1,037 participants who used marijuana persistently from about age 13 to age 38 lost an average of 8 IQ points. Controlling for years of education and other potential confounds such as alcohol and drug use did not affect these findings. Moreover, Meier found that “cessation of cannabis use did not fully restore IQ among adolescent-onset cannabis users.”
Editor’s Note: The popular view that marijuana is a benign substance overlooks some key facts. The main pharmacological effect of pot is amotivational syndrome, causing apathy and lack of drive to participate in work, study, and other activities. Heavy use of pot doubles the risk of psychosis, and this risk is further increased if a user has a common genetic variation in the enzyme catechol-o-methlyl transferase (COMT), which metabolizes dopamine. The more efficient allele of COMT (known as val-56-val, identifying two valine amino acids) lowers frontal cortex dopamine more, and increases the risk of delusions and hallucinations. Marijuana alters brain structure and impairs memory. It may now be legal in some states, and while reducing penalties for smoking marijuana may be a good idea, this does not mean the drug is a harmless substance.
The moral of the story is that avoiding marijuana use in the first place, especially for people with bipolar disorder, should make it easier to get well and stay well. For current marijuana users, N-acetylcysteine (NAC, a nutritional supplement available without a prescription from health food stores) has been shown to help adolescents decrease marijuana use more than placebo.
In a huge study of Swedes, compared to offspring of young fathers (aged 20–24), offspring of older fathers (over age 45) are 24.7 times more likely to develop bipolar disorder. Older paternal age was also associated with other risks of mental disorders, such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), suicide attempts, substance abuse and psychosis, but the strongest finding was of a relationship with bipolar disorder.
Mutations that occur during the production of sperm may be responsible for the increased risk of illness in the offspring of older fathers.
The population-based cohort study published by Brian M. D’Onofrio et al. in the journal JAMA Psychiatry included all individuals born in Sweden between 1973 and 2001.
New research suggests that the ratio of cortisol to C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, may be a biomarker of depression that affects men and women differently. In women, lower ratios of cortisol to CRP were associated with more severe depression symptoms, including poor quality sleep, sleep disturbances, and decreased extraversion. In men, higher ratios of cortisol to CRP were associated with more daytime disturbance and greater anxiety. The study by E.C. Suarez et al. was published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
Further work must be done to confirm whether low cortisol and high inflammation predicts depression in women, while the opposite (high cortisol and low inflammation) predicts depression in men.
In the past there has been some concern that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants taken during pregnancy could increase an infant’s risk of cardiac problems. There was particular concern that the SSRI paroxetine could lead to right ventricular outflow tract obstruction, and sertraline could lead to ventricular septal defects. A 2014 study by KF Huybrechts et al. in the New England Journal of Medicine analyzed data from 949,504 women in a Medicaid system from three months before pregnancy until one month after delivery during the years 2000-2007.
Infants born to mothers who had taken antidepressants during their first trimester were compared to infants whose mothers had not taken antidepressants. In total, 6.8% or 64,389 women had used antidepressants in their first trimester.
While the rate of cardiac defects in newborns was greater among those mothers who had taken antidepressants (90.1 infants per 10,000 infants who had been exposed to antidepressants versus 72.3 infants per 10,000 infants who had not been exposed to antidepressants), this relationship diminished as confounding variables were removed. The relative risk of any cardiac defect after taking SSRIs was 1.25, but this decreased to 1.12 when restricted to only those mothers who were diagnosed with depression, and to 1.06 when the researchers controlled for things like depression severity. (All relative risk numbers were calculated with a 95% confidence interval.)
The researchers concluded that there is no substantial risk of increased cardiac defects in children born to mothers who took antidepressants during their first trimester.
At the 2014 meeting of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology, researcher Rieva et al. reported that 60% of bipolar patients with comorbid alcohol abuse have attempted suicide, and 48% of bipolar patients with cocaine abuse have attempted suicide. Thus, both of these comorbidities deserve specific attention and treatment. Unfortunately there are currently no Federal Drug Administration–approved drugs for bipolar patients with these comorbidities. The most promising treatments, based on data in patients with primary addictions, are the nutritional supplement N-acetylcysteine and topiramate, which have both performed better than placebo in studies of alcohol and cocaine abuse disorders.
In a symposium at the 2014 meeting of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology, four researchers shared insights on children who are at high risk for bipolar disorder because they have a parent with the disorder.
Researcher John Nurnberger has been studying 350 children of parents with bipolar disorder in the US and 141 control children of parents with no major psychiatric disorder, following the participants into adolescence. He found a major affective disorder in 23.4% of the children with parents who have bipolar disorder and 4.4% of the controls. Of the at-risk children, 8.5% had a bipolar diagnosis versus 0% of the controls.
Nurnberger found that disruptive behavior disorders preceded the onset of mood disorders, as did anxiety disorders. These diagnoses predicted the later onset of bipolar disorder in the at-risk children, but not in the controls. A mood disorder in early adolescence predicted a substance abuse disorder later in adolescence among those at risk.
In genome-wide association studies, the genes CACNA1C and ODZ4 are consistently associated with risk of bipolar disorder, but with a very small effect size. Therefore, Nurnberger used 33 different gene variants to generate a total risk score and found that this measure was modestly effective in identifying relative risk of developing bipolar disorder. He hopes that using this improved risk calculation along with family history and clinical variables will allow better prediction of the risk of bipolar onset in the near future.
Researcher Ann Duffy reported on her Canadian studies of children who have a parent with bipolar disorder and thus are at high risk for developing the disorder. In contrast to the studies of Nurnberger et al. and many others in American patients, she found almost no childhood onset of bipolar disorder before late adolescence or early adulthood. She found that anxiety disorders emerge first, followed by depression, and then only much later bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder occurred with comorbid substance abuse disorders in only about 10-20% of cases in 1975, but substance abuse increased to 50% of bipolar cases in 2005. The incidence of comorbid substance disorder and the year at observation correlated strongly, indicating a trend toward increased substance abuse over the 30-year period.
Duffy found that having parents who were ill as opposed to recovered was associated with a more rapid onset of mood disorder in the offspring, usually in early adulthood. Duffy emphasized the need to intervene earlier in children of parents with bipolar disorder, but this is rarely done in clinical practice. Read more
At the 2014 meeting of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology, researcher Booij reported that in humans, there is an interaction between adversity experienced during childhood, and an epigenetic variation in the short form of the serotonin transporter (5HT-T ss, or SLC6A4), which can influence hippocampal volume during depression.
Epigenetics refers to environmental influences on the way genes are transcribed. The impact of life experiences such as stress is not registered in DNA sequences, but can influence the structure of DNA or tightness of its packaging. Early life experiences, particularly psychosocial stress, can lead to the accumulation of methyl groups on DNA (a process called methylation), which generally constricts DNA’s ability to start transcription (turning on) of genes and the synthesis of the proteins the genes encode. DNA is tightly wound around proteins called histones, which can also be methylated or acetylated based on events in the environment. When histones are acetylated, meaning that acetyl groups are attached to them, DNA is wound around them more loosely, facilitating gene transcription (i.e. the reading out of the DNA code into messenger RNA, which then arranges amino acids in order to construct proteins). Conversely, histone methylation usually tightens the winding of DNA and represses transcription.
Booij followed 33 children who had experienced some form of adversity at a young age until they were 15 or 16, examining methylation of the serotonin transporter in their T cells and monocytes compared to 36 children who had not experienced adversity during childhood. He found that in children who had experienced abuse in childhood, the degree of that abuse was correlated with methylation of the serotonin transporter and was inversely related to the volume of the hippocampus, as measured using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Thus, child abuse yields lasting epigenetic effects (methylation of the serotonin transporter) and has anatomical consequences in teenagers, as seen in smaller hippocampi. These data parallel converse findings by Joan Luby et al. published in the journal PNAS in 2012, in which increased maternal warmth directed toward a child aged 4-7 was associated with increased volume of the hippocampus several years later.