Studies in Adults Shed Light on the Prevalence of Childhood Bipolar Disorder and the Need for Early Treatment

November 23, 2011 · Posted in Course of Illness 

girl with psychiatrist

At the 2011 Pediatric Bipolar Disorder Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts this past March, Dr. Andrew Nierenberg from Massachusetts General Hospital presented a plenary paper, “What can we learn about bipolar youth from bipolar adults in 2011?”

Since it appears that a substantial number of bipolar adults experience illness onset in childhood, Nierenberg said that a useful approach to treating the illness over the lifetime is to begin treatment in childhood. Early intervention may be more effective and easier to accomplish than treatment much later in the course of illness after multiple pathological psychological, biochemical, and physiological occurrences and interactions have occurred.

Nierenberg’s research was gleaned from reviewing several studies that indicated that a substantial subgroup of bipolar adults had an early age of onset. He included data from his own STEP-BD studies published by Perlis et al. in Biological Psychiatry in 2004 and data from our Bipolar Collaborative Network published by Post et al. in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2008, as well as a study by Hamshere et al. published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2008, a study by Goldstein and Levitt published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2006, research by Ortiz et al. and by Bauer et al. both published in Psychiatry Research in 2010, and a study by Baldessarini et al. published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2010.

These studies indicate that one-fifth to a quarter of adult outpatients with bipolar disorder experienced illness onset prior to age 13, and one-half to two-thirds of patients experienced their onset in childhood or adolescence, i.e., before age 19.

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