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.
In 2007, the FDA began labeling antidepressants with a warning that patients aged 18-24 were at risk for increased suicidality during the first weeks of treatment. New evidence shows antidepressants actually have beneficial effects on suicide risk in adults. A study of all published and unpublished data on the SSRI fluoxetine (Prozac) and the SNRI venlafaxine (Effexor) published in 2012 by Gibbons et al. in the Archives of General Psychiatry showed that these antidepressants substantially reduced suicidal thoughts and behavior in adults and produced no increase in suicidal thoughts or behavior in children and adolescents.
The protective effect on suicidality in adults was mediated by mood, i.e. the patients’ mood improved and they became less suicidal. Children’s mood also improved on the antidepressants, but their risk of suicidal ideation did not change.
Editor’s Note: These are important findings. When the FDA box warning on antidepressants and suicidal ideation appeared, antidepressant treatment of youth decreased without an accompanying increase in psychotherapy, and the actual suicide rate in youth increased.
We now know that childhood-onset depression carries a bigger risk for a poor outcome in adulthood than adult-onset illness. In parallel, greater numbers of depressions are associated with more impairment, disability, cognitive dysfunction, medical comorbidities, treatment resistances, and neurobiological abnormalities.
It is important to treat illness in young people in order to prevent these difficulties, and the suicide warning should not deter the use of antidepressants. Patients should be careful about suicidal ideation in the first several months after starting an antidepressant, as other data suggest that this is a time of slightly increased risk of suicidal thoughts in children and adolescents.
A recent study of patients taking fluoxetine (Prozac) for major depression found that adding 1500 IU of vitamin D3 to their treatment regimen improved their response significantly. The article was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.
According to the Mayo Clinic:
The term “vitamin D” refers to several different forms of this vitamin. Two forms are important in humans: ergocalciferol (vitamin D2) and cholecalciferol (vitamin D3). Vitamin D2 is synthesized by plants. Vitamin D3 is synthesized by humans in the skin when it is exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) rays from sunlight. Foods may be fortified with vitamin D2 or D3.
Editors Note: Here is another augmenting agent that could be considered for the treatment of those with residual depression. While vitamin D has not been studied directly in bipolar depression, we could ask, “Why not try it?” Other nutritional supplements in this category might be folate and N-acetylcysteine.
Vitamin D supplements are definitely indicated for the large percentage of those in the US who are vitamin D deficient. Given the data from this randomized trial, vitamin D3 could be considered in those with normal levels of vitamin D as well.
A study of 85,000 children in Norway that was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that women who took folic acid during pregnancy were 40% less likely to have a child who developed autism.
A summary of the research by National Public Radio explained:
Folic acid is the synthetic version of a B vitamin called folate. It’s found naturally in foods such as spinach, black-eyed peas and rice. Public health officials recommend that women who may become pregnant take at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day to reduce the chance of having a child with spina bifida.
The folic acid’s effect reduced the most severe cases of autism but did not seem to have an effect on the incidence of more mild forms, such as Asperger syndrome. The benefits were seen in those women who had been taking folic acid for 4 weeks before conception and continued to take the supplement during the first 8 weeks of pregnancy.