In the past decade, several studies have indicated that people with bipolar disorder have less ability to recognize the emotions expressed on people’s faces than do healthy controls. A 2013 meta-analysis by Cecilia Samamé and colleagues concluded that facial emotion recognition was deficient in people with bipolar disorder regardless of their current state. A 2011 quantitative review article by Christian G. Kohler and colleagues revealed that this difficulty distinguishing emotions is general, rather than specific to any one emotion.
A 2015 study by Esther Vierck and colleagues in the journal Psychiatry Research showed that both euthymic patients with bipolar disorder and their first-degree relatives without bipolar disorder performed worse on tests of emotion recognition than did normal controls. The findings in healthy relatives suggest that the deficit may be a familial risk factor for the development of bipolar disorder.
These deficits in facial emotion recognition have also been seen in 4 out of 5 studies of children with early-onset bipolar disorder, including those who are euthymic. 2008 studies by Melissa A. Brotman and colleagues showed that even children just at high risk for bipolar disorder due to a family history of the disorder had deficient emotion recognition.
This literature indicates that deficiencies in facial emotion recognition consistently accompany bipolar disorder and may also be a sign that a child or teenager is at risk for bipolar disorder. Since these deficits can create social and interpersonal difficulties, it may be useful to teach better emotion recognition skills to people with bipolar disorder or those at high risk for the illness.
Two studies published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2015 suggest that the new atypical antipsychotic brexpiprazole (trade name Rexulti) safely improves depression when added to antidepressant treatment. The 6-week studies, both by Michael E. Thase and colleagues, compared brexpiprazole to placebo in people who had not responded adequately to one to three antidepressants and were taking at least one antidepressant at the time of the study.
The studies examined the effectiveness of different doses of brexpiprazole. Doses of 2mg/day and 3mg/day were more effective than placebo, while a dose of 1mg/day was not. The drug was well-tolerated by patients at each of these doses, although those taking the 3mg/day reported more side effects than those taking 2mg/day. The side effects included restless legs, weight gain, and headaches.
Like the atypical antipsychotic aripiprazole (Abilify), brexpiprazole partially blocks and partially stimulates dopamine receptors. While aripiprazole allows 61% activity at dopamine D2 receptors, brexpiprazole allows 43%. It is not yet clear how the new drug’s effects may differ from those of aripiprazole.
Another relatively new atypical antipsychotic drug, cariprazine (Vraylar) is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for schizophrenia and mania, but not yet for bipolar depression or as an add-on treatment to antidepressants in unipolar depression, although there are placebo-controlled trials showing that cariprazine can also treat these conditions.
Like aripiprazole and brexpiprazole, cariprazine also partially blocks and partially stimulates dopamine receptors. Unlike them, cariprazine is more potent at dopamine D3 receptors, which are linked to mood, motivation, and drug reward, than at D2 receptors, which are linked to motor control. It is not yet clear how these differences may change treatment outcomes or side effects.
At the 2015 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, researcher John Geddes presented an important study showing in inadequate responders to quetiapine that compared to adding placebo, adding the anticonvulsant lamotrigine to their treatment improved depression rapidly and lastingly. Some psychiatrists have been prescribing this combination to patients for some time, but this is the first formal clinical trial documenting its efficacy. The article was published online in December in the journal Lancet Psychiatry.
Researcher Guy Goodwin described details of the study, called CEQUEL, at the meeting. It included 202 patients with bipolar I or II disorder who required treatment for a depressive episode. Participants who did not respond completely to 14 days of treatment with quetiapine were prescribed either an additional dose of lamotrigine or a placebo. Lamotrigine was very slowly titrated up to maximum doses of 200mg/day. Its antidepressant effects were striking. They began early and persisted for 50 weeks. (The published article covers only the first 12 weeks.) Response rates for the combination of quetiapine and lamotrigine were 52%, compared to 22% for quetiapine alone. Remission rates were 35% for quetiapine and lamotrigine and 12% for quetiapine alone.
Folic acid interaction
Another part of the study assessed whether folic acid supplements could improve outcomes, but in fact they did the opposite, reversing the benefits of adding lamotrigine. Geddes did not have an explanation for why this might be the case. Lamotrigine can inhibit folate metabolism, and it had been thought that adding folate would be useful. Until further data are gathered on folate augmentation in patients taking the combination of lamotrigine and quetiapine, folate should be used cautiously if at all in these patients.
Possible combination with lithium
In Goodwin’s talk, he also noted lithium’s potential to lower suicide rates, premature mortality, and cognitive impairment, and to increase hippocampal and cortical volume.
Since lamotrigine was shown to potentiate the antidepressant effects of lithium in a study by Van der Loos and colleagues, and quetiapine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the prevention of depression as an adjunct to lithium (or valproate), there might be theoretical acute and long-term benefits to combining the three: lithium, quetiapine, and lamotrigine.
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.
There is more evidence that childhood onset of bipolar illness means a more difficult course of illness. In a study published in World Psychiatry in 2012, Baldessarini et al. pooled data from 1,665 adult patients with bipolar I disorder at seven international sites and compared their family history of bipolar disorder, outcomes, and age of onset. Among these patients, 5% had onset in childhood (age <12 years), 28% during adolescence (12-18), and 53% during a peak period from age 15-25.
Patients who were younger at onset had more episodes per year, more co-morbidities, and a greater likelihood of a family history of the illness. Patients who were older at onset were more likely to have positive functional outcomes in adulthood, like being employed, living independently, and having a family.
The antioxidant N-acetylcysteine (NAC), which can be found in health food stores, seems to be effective for irritability and repetitive behaviors in children with autism. In a small controlled study that was published by Hardan et al. in the journal Biological Psychiatry in 2012, 33 mostly male children with autism (aged 3-12 years) received either placebo or NAC at doses of 900mg daily for 4 weeks, followed by 900mg twice daily for 4 weeks, then 900mg three times a day for 4 weeks. Beginning in week 4, the children receiving NAC showed significantly improved irritability scores, and a trend for improvement in repetitive behaviors.
Social responsiveness did not improve significantly, but the children receiving NAC did show some improvement in some areas of social behavior, such as social cognition and autism mannerisms.
There were few side effects associated with NAC. The most significant were gastrointestinal side effects, but these were mild, especially when compared with the side effects associated with FDA-approved treatments for autism, such as the atypical antipsychotics risperidone and aripiprazole.
The authors of the study plan to expand their research in a study of more than 100 children with autism.
Editor’s Note: It should we previously summarized this study in the BNN based on research presented by Fung et al. at a meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry two years ago. The study has now been published.
Research has connected cardiovascular fitness with depression risk and treatment. A Swedish study published last year in the British Journal of Psychiatry examined records of men conscripted into the military at age 18 and compared their cardiovascular fitness at the time with hospital records from later decades. Low cardiovascular fitness at the time of conscription was associated with increased risk for serious depression.
Editor’s Note: This study provides more evidence that exercise, which increases cardiovascular fitness and decreases many of the elements of the metabolic syndrome, is good for cardiovascular and neuropsychological health, including mood stability. It is noteworthy that exercise also increases both brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF (important for neural development and long-term memory) and neurogenesis (in animals), effects shared by almost all treatments with antidepressant properties. Making exercise a routine part of a regimen aimed at medical and psychiatric health is a great idea.
As childhood obesity has increased over the past several decades, the metabolic syndrome has also become more prevalent among children and adolescents. The metabolic syndrome consists of five measures related to obesity: elevations in fasting glucose levels or insulin resistance, a high proportion of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) to HDL (“good” cholesterol), elevated triglycerides, hypertension, and abdominal obesity or high waist circumference. A patient with three of these abnormalities would be diagnosed with the metabolic syndrome.
In adults, the metabolic syndrome has been associated with neurocognitive impairments. Researchers decided to look at adolescents with the metabolic syndrome to determine whether these brain effects are a result of long-term metabolic impairment or whether they can take place after short-term periods of poor metabolism as well. In a study published by Yau et al. in the journal Pediatrics last year, 49 adolescents with the metabolic syndrome were compared to 62 adolescents without the syndrome who had been matched for similar age, socioeconomic status, school grade, gender, and ethnicity.
The adolescents with the metabolic syndrome had lower scores on tests of math, spelling, attention, and mental flexibility, as well as a trend for lower overall intelligence. In brain measures such as hippocampal volume, amount of brain cerebrospinal fluid, and microstructural integrity in white matter tracts, the seriousness of the metabolic syndrome correlated with the level of abnormality on these measures.
Editor’s Note: It seems as though even short-term problems with metabolism can lead to brain impairments like lower cognitive performance and decreased integrity of brain structures. These effects are even seen before vascular disease and type 2 diabetes are manifest.
It is doubly important, in terms of both cardiovascular and neurobiological risks, to look out for one’s medical and psychiatric health. Reducing the abnormal components of the metabolic syndrome should produce benefits for both the cardiovascular system and the central nervous system.
Almost 40% of patients with bipolar illness in the US have the metabolic syndrome, so considerable effort will be required to improve this public health crisis.
Many patients with depression require two or more treatments in order to achieve remission. In a 2011 study by Trivedi et al. published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, patients with major depressive disorder who had not responded adequately to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants improved when an exercise regimen was added to their regular treatment.
The patients, aged 18-70 years old, were all sedentary at the start of the trial. They were randomized to one of two exercise regimens: a high dose regimen (16 kcal/kg per week, equivalent to walking at about 4 mph for 210 minutes per week) or the low dose (4 kcal/kg per week, equivalent to walking at 3 mph for about 75 minutes per week). Both groups improved significantly by the end of the study. Remission rates (adjusted for differences between groups) were 28.3% for the high dose group and 15.5% for the low dose group.
The rates of improvement with exercise were similar or better to those commonly seen with other augmenting agents such as lithium, T3, buspirone, and atypical antipsychotics, but without side effects and other inconveniences such as blood monitoring.
Other studies have indicated that exercise by itself and in combination with other treatments has efficacy in depression. Exercise can change serotonin and norepinephrine function and can increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a, and neurogenesis in the hippocampus.
The researchers looked for moderating variables that may have affected the outcomes of various participants. Men, regardless of family history of mental illness, had better remission rates in the high dose group. Women without a family history of mental illness also improved more in the high dose group, while women with a family history of mental illness improved more in the low dose group, though this finding was statistically nonsignificant.
While the researchers observed that those in the high-dose group did exercise more than those in the low-dose group, participants in the high-dose group had more difficulty sticking to their exercise regimen. It may be that even though high doses of exercise offer slightly higher rates of remission, lower doses may be more effective clinically if patients can stick to the low-dose regimen better.
A 30-year observational study published by Andrew Leon and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry has found that anticonvulsants used in epilepsy and for bipolar depression (carbamazepine, lamotrigine, and valproate) do not increase suicidal behavior in bipolar patients.
Editor’s Note: The FDA gave a warning in 2009 that these anticonvulsants were associated with suicidal ideation. This was based on studies of a mixed group of psychiatry and neurological patients in acute placebo-controlled studies, where suicidal ideation is typically a reason for exclusion from the study. Leon et al. used more powerful longitudinal methods to compare the risk of suicidal ideation in individuals taking and not taking anticonvulsants and found no such increase in suicidal behavior.
This is like the FDA warning for antidepressants and suicide, which was based on data from placebo-controlled clinical trials in acute depression (where suicidal patients are excluded). When investigators used the same longitudinal methods as Leon et al. in the anticonvulsant study, they found that antidepressants actually reduced suicidal behavior by 30%.
The bottom line is that the use of anticonvulsants for bipolar disorder should not be discouraged based on the FDA warning about suicidal ideation in mixed neurological and psychiatric patients. In bipolar patients, anticonvulsants do not increase the risk of suicidal behaviors, i.e. suicidal acts or completed suicides.