Memantine (Namenda) is an N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) glutamate receptor antagonist that is FDA-approved for the treatment of Alzheimer’s dementia. Its use in other illnesses such as bipolar disorder and autism is currently being explored.
As we have written in previous issues of the BNN, A. Anand et al. reported in 2012 that in bipolar depression, memantine has an initial antidepressant augmentation effect when added to lamotrigine, an inhibitor of glutamate release. Koukopoulos et al. also reported in 2012 that in an open study, memantine had a large and sustained effect in previously treatment-resistant patients with bipolar disorder, producing an impressive 60-70% rate of excellent response at 6 months and again at 12 months of follow-up.
There is some evidence that memantine can be useful in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study of memantine combined with fluoxetine published by Ghaleiha et al. in 2012, patients with moderate to severe OCD taking memantine and fluoxetine were more likely to achieve remission after 8 weeks than patients taking placebo and fluoxetine.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is another condition that memantine may be able to treat. Disturbances in NMDA receptor activity are thought to play a role in ADHD. Small, preliminary studies of memantine in ADHD have been promising.
New research has begun to explore memantine’s effects in autism. In one recent randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study published by Ghaleiha et al. in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, memantine produced improvement in children with autistic disorder when the drug was added to a treatment regimen that included risperidone, which blocks dopamine D2 receptors and is FDA-approved for the treatment of schizophrenia and mania, as well as autism.
However, at the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Robert Findling presented a poster on extended release memantine (Namenda) in children with autism, a study with negative results. This was a monotherapy study, unlike the above studies in which memantine was added to treatment with another drug. Findling found that extended release memantine (at doses of 3mg to 15mg per day) was well tolerated in children with autism, but the drug on its own was not significantly more effective than placebo in these preliminary studies.
Editor’s Note: Taken together, these data suggest an emerging role for memantine and possibly other drugs that work through NMDA receptor blockade in several disorders associated with repetitive behavior, like OCD and autism. The role of memantine augmentation in each of these syndromes deserves further exploration.
At the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), Melissa P. DelBello presented a poster on the design of a maintenance study in bipolar youth to determine characteristics of patients who stabilized on adjunctive lamotrigine. The study included children aged 10 to 17 who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Of a total 244 potential subjects, 160 individuals or 66% stabilized on lamotrigine during the open (not blind) portion of the study. Of these, 143 were randomized to either lamotrigine continuation or placebo.
Seventeen participants did not enter the randomized phase of the study, primarily because of withdrawal of consent, presumably because they were reluctant to be placed in the placebo group. The authors concluded that a study design involving randomization to medication continuation versus withdrawal with placebo substitution could underestimate the true level of treatment response.
However, the high stabilization rate of 66% using adjunctive lamotrigine in the open phase of the study suggests that the drug is effective. Clearly confirmation of this in the double-blind randomized phase is needed to confirm this prediction.
Adults with bipolar disorder have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and premature death from cardiovascular illness than the general population. At the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Benjamin Goldstein presented a poster in which he showed that youth with bipolar disorder may also have abnormal cardiovascular function.
When a tourniquet is applied, blood vessels normally expand to make up for the period of oxygen deprivation. This does not happen as readily in patients with mood disorders. This lack of flexibility and compensatory response could be one of the reasons for increased cardiovascular difficulties in those with mood disorders.
In Goldstein’s study, noninvasive ultrasound imaging was used to measure the thickness of the walls of the carotid artery and flow mediated dilation of the artery in adolescents with bipolar disorder and those without the illness. The data was collected by a certified ultrasound technologist who remained blind to the patients’ diagnostic and symptom status.
Goldstein found highly abnormal results in 14 adolescents aged 14 to 19 with bipolar disorder compared to controls. He concluded that reducing cardiovascular risk in bipolar disorder is a pressing clinical and public health challenge and that treating these patients while they are adolescents may offer considerable advantages both for prevention and for understanding the progression of cardiovascular problems in patients with bipolar disorder.
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.
Irritability is common in unipolar depression. Emslie suggested that if a child’s irritability is severe and the child destroys objects and denies being irritable, bipolar disorder might be likely. Irritable unipolar depressed children will generally acknowledge being irritable.
Emslie reported that 96% of youth in his randomized placebo-controlled studies of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants (SSRIs) recovered from their unipolar depression, but 46.6% relapsed. Those children with residual depressive symptoms were at double the risk for relapse into a depression compared to those who remitted completely. In those without residual depressive symptoms, there were no relapses if the children stayed on their medications.
Children were excluded from Emslie’s study if they had a positive family history of bipolar disorder, and perhaps because of this, very few participants switched into mania with antidepressants.
MORAL: Treat to remission and stay on the antidepressants associated with the remission. This has previously been found to be important for adults as well. (Emslie added that he would advise that a child stay on an antidepressant for at least a year after a remission was achieved, and longer if the child had difficulties in academic performance or relationships at school.)
Children with unipolar major depression who had a few manic symptoms at a subsyndromal level had poorer outcomes in Emslie’s study. The presence of subsyndromal manic symptoms in bipolar depressed adults is a risk factor for increased switching into mania when antidepressants are added to a mood stabilizer.
Comorbid substance abuse is another risk factor for poor outcome in childhood depression.
In two posters presented at the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a research group led by Kiki Chang reported that increased severity of manic symptoms is associated with increased size of the amygdala (especially the right amygdala) in adolescents who are at high risk for developing bipolar disorder.
The amygdala is a crucial area for emotion regulation. The increasing size, either with more manic symptoms or as patients with bipolar disorder age into adulthood compared to normal volunteer controls (as we describe in the article on brain imaging at far left) could reflect increased use of the amygdala in bipolar disorder.
The increased amygdala size could be linked to increased emotion dysregulation, or it could be a compensatory mechanism in which the amygdala works harder to exert better emotion control.
Experience-dependent neuroplasticity describes a phenomenon in which the volume of a brain area increases as it gets more use (like a muscle that grows when it gets more exercise). One interesting example in which this may occur is London taxi drivers, who have larger hippocampi than the general public. (The hippocampus is responsible for some of the brain’s spatial recognition abilities.) This could be explained in two different ways. The discrepancy in size between the hippocampi of taxi drivers and of the general population may exist because the taxi drivers’ brains change over the course of their careers via experience-dependent neuroplasticity, or it may exist because those with excellent spatial recognition abilities and bigger hippocampi choose to become taxi drivers.
At the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), Carrie E. Bearden presented data from a study that predicted conversion to psychosis in at-risk youth (those who have prodromal symptoms or a particular genetic mutation that leads to psychosis) by observing white matter abnormalities.
Bearden found that the degree of white matter abnormality seen during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was proportional to the degree of cognitive deficit in patients who subsequently developed a first episode of psychosis. The white matter abnormalities were seen particularly in the superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF) and were associated with increased severity of symptomatology. The overall degree of white matter alteration was also significantly related to clinical outcome 15 months later.
Editor’s Note: The SLF is a major neuronal conduit between prefrontal cortical systems, which are responsible for cognition and planning, and the parietal cortex, which is responsible for spatial abilities. Disruption of this fiber track has been related to difficulties in social cognition and “theory of mind” concepts, like inferring what others might be thinking.
There is considerable evidence that children with bipolar disorder have smaller amygdalas, and the amygdala also appears to be hyper-reactive when these children perform facial emotion recognition tasks. A symposium on longitudinal imaging studies in pediatric bipolar disorder was held at the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry to shed light on other brain abnormalities in these children.
Researcher Nancy Aldeman reported that there is some evidence children with bipolar disorder have decreased gray matter volume in parts of the brain including the subgenual cingulate gyrus, the orbital frontal cortex, and the superior temporal gyrus, as well as the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and amygdala. At the same time there is evidence of increased size of the basal ganglia. These abnormalities do not appear to precede the onset of the illness.
Some changes occur over the course of the illness. The basal ganglia seem to increase in volume in patients with bipolar disorder, but decrease in volume in those with severe mood dysregulation and comorbid ADHD. Moreover, parietal cortex and precuneus cortex volumes appeared to increase in children with bipolar disorder while decreasing or staying the same in normal volunteer controls.
A meta-analysis of brain imaging studies indicated that in general, the size of the amygdala appears to increase from childhood to adulthood in bipolar patients, starting out smaller than that of similarly-aged normal volunteers, but becoming larger than that of adult normal volunteers as the patients age into adulthood.
Lithium treatment increases gray matter volume in a variety of cortical areas and in the hippocampus in multiple studies. In contrast, treatment with valproate for 6 weeks appears to decrease hippocampal volume.
While the 4 major childhood-onset psychiatric illnesses we discussed this week (bipolar, unipolar, ADHD, and anxiety disorders) show long term difficulties into adulthood in the majority of instances, it appears that the most severely impacted are those with bipolar disorder. These data are also consistent with retrospective data from multiple cohorts of adults with bipolar disorder, which indicate that those whose illness began in childhood fared more poorly in adulthood than those with adult-onset illness. Thus, while there has been a modicum of treatment research in childhood depression and anxiety disorder and a plethora of treatment studies in ADHD, the dearth of treatment studies in children with bipolar disorder is all the more disconcerting.
Bipolar disorder is common, occurring in some 2 to 3% of children and adolescents, and carries a relatively grave prognosis into adulthood in the majority of instances, especially when it is inadequately treated. Virtually all of the investigators in the area of childhood-onset bipolar who presented at the AACAP meeting have pleaded for increased treatment research for bipolar disorder in children, and one can only hope that their message is soon heard.