A recent study by Robert Smith and colleagues studied the use of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in patients with schizophrenia. TDCS is very low level current that has a positive (anode) or negative (cathode) electrode. Anodal stimulation of the cortex is usually associated with positive effects on mood and cognition. Patients received either five sessions of active tDCS for 20 minutes (at 2 milli Amps) or a sham stimulation for the same period. Then, one day after the final session, the patients were measured on a variety of scales for cognition and illness. Patients who received the active tDCS showed more improvements in working memory and attention than patients who received the sham treatment.
There was no difference in the two groups’ schizophrenic symptoms, including hallucinations. Smith and colleagues suggest that the improvements in cognition may result from changes to brain connectivity networks, since abnormalities in these networks have been identified in patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Replications of this type of study are needed to clarify the effect of tDCS on cognition in schizophrenia, but given the safety and convenience of the procedure, the findings are promising.
In studies of rodents, running on a wheel reduces cocaine self-administration. A recent study by Richard de la Garza and colleagues investigated whether running or walking on a treadmill can reduce cocaine cravings and use in humans. In the study of 24 participants who had been using cocaine an average of 19.7 years, participants were randomized to run, walk, or sit for 30 minutes three times per week for four consecutive weeks. After exercising, the participants reported having less craving for cocaine. Fitness measures such as body weight and resting heart rate improved in both walkers and runners. While not statistically significant, by the end of the study there was a trend indicating that exercise improved abstinence from cocaine and decreased daily craving for cocaine.
Editor’s Note: Exercise Increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and neurogenesis. In rodents, cocaine is associated with decreases in BDNF in the frontal cortex, and injecting BDNF there decreases cocaine seeking. Whether this BDNF effect or the general effects of exercise on mood and conditioning account for these positive cocaine effects remains to be ascertained.
Adolescence may be a period of particular vulnerability to the effects of stress. New research by Shannon Gourley indicates a possible mechanism for this vulnerability. When Gourley exposed adolescent mice to low levels of the stress hormone corticosterone (the equivalent to human cortisol), they developed habit-based rather than goal-oriented decision-making, leading to behaviors that resembled human depression, which lasted into adulthood. Adult mice that were exposed to the low levels of corticosterone were not affected by it.
Gourley also used an alternative method of producing these stress responses a second time by silencing the trkB receptor for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the amygdala and hippocampus of the mice. The depression-like behaviors that resulted, such as lack of motivation, were able to be reversed by treating the mice with 7,8-dihydroxyflavone, a drug that activated the trkB receptor. In the adolescent mice, this treatment had antidepressant effects that lasted into adulthood, even though the treatment stopped earlier.
Telomeres are repeated DNA sequences that sit at the end of chromosomes and protect them during cell replication. Telomeres get shorter with aging and with stressors or psychiatric illnesses. Researcher Alexandre Mathe and colleagues recently found that in a line of rats bred to be more susceptible to stress and depression-like behavior, hippocampal telomeres were shorter than in normal rats or rats bred to be less susceptible. The susceptible rats also had lower levels of enzymes that maintain telomere length. Both telomerase activity and Tert (telomerase reverse transcriptase) expression were reduced in the susceptible rat compared to the other rats. However, lithium reversed the low levels of telomerase activity and Tert expression.
Editor’s Note: Lithium increases hippocampal volume in people, and also increases human telomerase. Researcher Lina Martinsson reported in 2013 that lithium increases telomere length in white cells. Now lithium has increased hippocampal telomerase in a rat model of depression. Short telomeres are associated with aging and increased vulnerability to a wide range of medical and psychiatric disorders. Since people with bipolar disorder are prone to memory problems, medical problems, and short telomeres, they might want to talk to their physician about including lithium in their treatment regimen, if they are not already taking it.
Several genes have previously been implicated in bipolar illness. In a recent study, researchers at the Mayo Clinic, led by Paul Croarkin, compared variations in three genes (CACNA1C, ANK3, and ODZN) across 69 children aged 6–15 with mania, a 776-person control group from the Mayo Biobank database, and 732 adults with bipolar disorder (some with onset in childhood and adolescence and some with onset in adulthood, also from the Biobank). All participants were Caucasian, to minimize confounding by population stratification. The researchers found that the minor allele of rs10848632 in CACNA1C was associated with childhood onset of bipolar disorder. The haplotype (or sequence of nucleotides) T-G-G-T was the one associated with risk. Genetic risk scores were also associated with early onset of illness.
Editor’s Note: In research by Michael McCarthy and colleagues, CACNA1C has been linked to abnormal circadian rhythms in bipolar disorder and to responsiveness to lithium treatment. Together, these data suggest the importance of studying the calcium channel blocker nimodipine (which blocks calcium influx through CACNA1C) in childhood-onset bipolar disorder. A 1999 case report by Pablo A. Davanzo and colleagues described a teenager with ultra rapid cycling bipolar disorder (multiple mood switches/day) that did not respond to a host of conventional medications, who improved dramatically on nimodipine, reaching remission. This author (Robert M. Post) has also seen confirmed responsivity in adults with rapid cycling bipolar disorder (reported in the 2008 book Treatment of Bipolar Illness: A Casebook for Clinicians and Patients, by Post and Gabriele S. Leverich).
Genetic variation in L-type calcium channel genes have been linked to bipolar disorder. Since calcium plays an important role in circadian rhythms, abnormalities in the calcium channel in bipolar disorder could explain some of the circadian rhythm disturbances patients with bipolar disorder exhibit. New research by Michael McCarthy and colleagues shows that calcium channels in general, and the gene CACNA1C in particular, affect signaling pathways that regulate circadian rhythms in both human and animal cells. The researchers also found that calcium channels affected how lithium changes circadian rhythms, suggesting a mechanism by which the treatment may work. They suggest that drugs that affect the L-type calcium channel may be promising treatments for bipolar disorder.
Editor’s Note: The L-type calcium channel blocker nimodipine has had antidepressant, antimanic, and anticycling effects in some patients with bipolar disorder in small studies both by Peggy Pazzaglia and colleagues (including this author Robert Post) and a larger randomized study by Haroon R. Chaudhry.
The clinical effects of nimodipine results thus align with studies linking the CACNA1C gene to bipolar illness and its early onset, increased expression of the gene in the brain of bipolar patients in autopsy studies, increased levels of calcium in white cells of bipolar patients, and a variety of other neurobiological phenomena observed in normal controls carrying the risk gene.
The new link found between CACNA1C and circadian rhythms further links the L-type calcium channel abnormality and bipolar disorder, as well as the therapeutic effects of the L-type calcium channel blocker nimodipine. This drug deserves further study, especially in those with the genetic variation in CACNA1C that has been linked to bipolar disorder.
Children who have a parent with bipolar disorder are at risk for bipolar illness, but it may first present as depression. Treating these children with antidepressants has the risk of bringing on manic episodes. Researchers are looking for treatment options for youth at risk for bipolar disorder.
Robert McNamara and colleagues found that 12 weeks of omega-3 fatty acids (2,100 mg/day) significantly improved response rates in medication-free youth ages 9–20 years compared to placebo (64% versus 36%). Omega-3 fatty acids but not placebo also reduced the activation of limbic structures in the brain (the left parahippocampal gyrus) in response to emotional stimuli.
Editor’s Note: These data add to the literature on the positive effects of 1–2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids in depression. Given the safety of omega-3 fatty acids and the ambiguous effects of antidepressants in bipolar depression, omega-3 fatty acids would appear to a good alternative, especially since the FDA-approved atypical antipsychotics (quetiapine and lurasidone) are not approved for bipolar depression in people under age 18.
Cariprazine is a new atypical antipsychotic that has positive results in the treatment of schizophrenia, bipolar mania and depression, and as an add-on treatment to antidepressants in unipolar depression. In a recent study by Frank Tarazi and colleagues, cariprazine shared some actions with aripiprazole (trade name Abilify), which is approved by the Federal Drug Administration as an adjunctive treatment for unipolar depression in addition to treating mania in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Both cariprazine and aripiprazole partially block dopamine receptors. They allow a little stimulation of the receptors (activating or agonist effects) while preventing dopamine from binding there. With ongoing treatment, this blocking action prompts an increase in the number of dopamine receptors to compensate for the blocking.
In rats, both drugs led to increases in several types of dopamine receptors, but cariprazine did so at lower doses. Following 28 days of treatment with aripiprazole at doses of 5–15 mg/kg, rats had higher levels of D2 and D4 receptors in several brain regions than other rats that received no drug. Higher doses of aripiprazole also increased D3 receptors in some regions, indicating that the drug works less well at those receptors. Lower doses of cariprazine (0.06–0.6 mg/kg) increased D2 and D4 receptors significantly, and increased D3 receptors more than aripiprazole did, and in a greater number of forebrain regions.
Among antipsychotic drugs, both aripiprazole and cariprazine are unique in providing a little stimulation (partial agonist effects) at dopamine receptors, while all others drugs in the class are pure blockers (antagonists) of dopamine receptors.
The researchers concluded that cariprazine was more potent than aripiprazole at dopamine receptors, especially D3 receptors.
Both bipolar disorder and unipolar depression often begin in childhood or adolescence, but it can be difficult to distinguish the two using symptoms only. People with bipolar illness may go a decade without receiving a correct diagnosis. Researcher Jorge Almeida and colleagues recently performed a meta-analysis of previous studies to determine what neural activity is typical of children with bipolar disorder versus children with unipolar depression while processing images of facial emotion. They found that youth with bipolar disorder were more likely to show limbic hyperactivity and cortical hypoactivity during emotional face processing than youth with unipolar depression. Almeida and colleagues hope that this type of data may eventually be used to diagnose these disorders or to measure whether treatment has been successful.
In new research by Ofer Agid and colleagues, patients in their first schizophrenic episode who reached remission in response to one of two antipsychotic medications (risperidone or olanzapine) and relapsed due to medication non-adherence were re-treated with the same medication regimen that had brought about remission. Reinitiating the same treatment was not as successful in bringing about remission of the patients’ second psychotic episodes.
Patients showed different types of trajectories in their first remission, from immediate to gradual improvement, and these predicted parallel trajectories of their treatment response during the second episode, though the muted response to antipsychotics existed across the board. Dopamine is the main target of antipsychotic treatments, but its role in schizophrenia is not straightforward, and Agid and colleagues stress that response and relapse are multidimensional processes.
Editor’s Note: These data are consistent with the research of J.A. Lieberman and colleagues fifteen years ago, which showed that response to antipsychotic treatment is poorer in successive episodes of psychosis. The findings are also consistent with the idea of episode sensitization in mood disorders, developed by this author (Robert Post). Episode sensitization refers to the case in which greater numbers of prior depressions or manias are associated with faster relapse and a greater degree of treatment resistance.
The data raise major doubts about the common practice of quitting medications to see if remission can be maintained without them. There are dozens of studies in patients with schizophrenia showing that continuous treatment is more effective than intermittent treatment.