In a 2015 article in Nature Neuroscience, Stefan Bonn and André Fischer reported that when mice were prompted to use their long-term memory to recognize a specific environment, epigenetic changes occurred in their neurons and glia. Epigenetic changes refer to chemical alterations in DNA or histones (which give DNA structure) that increase or decrease the expression of certain genes. Sometimes environmental factors lead to a methyl or acetyl group joining a strand of DNA or histones, changing how easily the genes are turned on or off.
When the mice used their long-term memory, the main change that occurred was DNA methylation in their neurons. There were also changes to histones that were linked to memory acquisition but resulted in few changes in gene expression. The DNA methylation changes, on the other hand, changed neural pathways, leading to “rewiring” of the brain.
Doctors have known for some time that treatment with high-intensity light (7,000–10,000 Lux) can improve seasonal depression. In an 8-week study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in 2015, researcher Raymond Lam compared four different treatment options for non-seasonal major unipolar depression: bright light therapy for 30 minutes per day first thing in the morning, 20 mg of the antidepressant fluoxetine per day, combined bright light therapy and fluoxetine, and a placebo device paired with a placebo pill.
The combination of bright light therapy and fluoxetine produced remission in 58.6% of the participants who received it, compared to remission rates of 43.8% for bright light alone, 19.4% for fluoxetine alone, and 30% for placebo. It is notable that the effects of fluoxetine did not exceed those of placebo, but the effects of light alone did. There were few side effects in any group.
These data provide convincing evidence of the efficacy of light therapy in the treatment of non-seasonal unipolar depression. Use of light therapy for non-seasonal depression should now be more routinely considered, particularly when combined with antidepressant treatment.
Patients who had previously failed to respond to two or more antidepressants and patients with bipolar depression were excluded from the study. Bright light therapy administered in the morning can sometimes bring about mixed states in people with bipolar disorder. A 2007 case study by D. Sit and colleagues in the journal Bipolar Disorders found that midday light led to more improvement and less risk of mixed states than morning light among women with bipolar disorder.
Psychiatrists should take the lead in endorsing general wellness and encouraging healthy behaviors, says researcher James Hudziak. He suggests that opportunities to practice music, mindfulness, and exercise should be made available to all school children to increase brain health, and that more intensive efforts are necessary for children in families that are at risk for mood and behavioral difficulties or in children who show some dysfunction in these areas. Hudziak has implemented a statewide program in Vermont that encourages families to engage in these healthy practices.
Hudziak and colleagues analyzed brain scans of 232 children ages 6 to 18, looking for relationships between cortical thickness and musical training. They found that practicing an instrument such as the piano or violin increased working memory, gray matter volume in the brain, and the ability to screen out irrelevant noise. Practicing mindfulness increased white matter volume and reduced anxiety and depression. Exercise also increased brain volume and neuropsychological abilities.
Now Hudziak urges parents to advocate for the teaching of music, mindfulness, and exercise in schools as a way of improving general health, especially since music and gym are often the first programs to be cut when schools face budget shortages. Hudziak suggests that opportunities for athletics should be provided to all children, independent of their skill level, rather than only for the best athletes who “make the team.” Intramural teams should be open to all children, including those with less ability or minimal athletic skills. Exercise, teamwork, and friendships benefit all children.
For more information about the programs Hudziak implemented in Vermont, use the internet to search for the Vermont Family Based Approach, see his book Developmental Psychopathology and Wellness: Genetic and Environmental Influences, or call the University of Vermont Medical Center at (802)847-0000 or (800)358-1144.
Another tool that may be useful to parents of children aged 2 to 12 who are at risk for mood disorders is our Child Network, a secure online portal where parents can complete quick weekly ratings of their child’s mood and behavior, which is then graphed over time and can be used to show the child’s doctors how his or her symptoms are fluctuating and how well any treatment is working.
Raising body temperature by a few degrees may produce antidepressant effects as the body’s cooling mechanisms kick in. At the US Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress in 2015, researcher Charles Raison described a study comparing the effects of exposing participants to a special heating coil in a tent that retained the heat until their body temperatures increased by a few degrees to those of a sham procedure that did not raise body temperature. Those participants whose body temperature was increased had a lower body temperature the following day, and their depression improved as their bodies cooled. These improvements lasted six weeks or more.
Depressed patients tend to have elevated body temperatures. Raison suggests that raising body temperatures even more prompts the body’s cooling mechanisms to compensate, bringing cooling activity to normal levels from the skin to the brain and improving depression.
A 2015 study by Rene L. Olvera and colleagues in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry indicated that among 1,768 Mexican-Americans living along the border from 2004–2010, 30% were currently depressed, 14% had severe depression, and 52% were obese. Women were more likely to be depressed, and more likely to have severe depression. Other factors making depression more likely included low education, obesity, low levels of “good” cholesterol, and larger waist circumference. Low education and extreme obesity were also linked to severe depression.
In a commentary on the article in the same issue, researcher Susan L. McElroy wrote that “the medical field needs to firmly accept that obesity is a risk factor for depression and, conversely, that depression is a risk factor of obesity.” She suggested that people with obesity, those who carry excess weight around their middles, and those who have related metabolic symptoms such as poor cholesterol should all be evaluated for depression. Likewise, those with depression should have their weight and body measures monitored. People with both obesity and depression should be evaluated for disordered eating.
Lithium is the treatment of choice for adults with bipolar disorder, but has rarely been studied in children or adolescents. One of the first double-blind placebo-controlled trials of lithium for the treatment of mania in children and teens aged 7–17 showed that the drug produced greater improvement in mania than did placebo. Side effects included blurred vision, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, thirst, increased thyroid-stimulating hormone, decreased appetite, dizziness, sedation, tremor, increased urination, and rash.
In the study by researcher Adelaide S. Robb and colleagues, which was presented at the 2015 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, doses began at 300mg twice a day, were based on each child’s weight, and were slowly increased.
At the same meeting, researcher Russell Scheffer presented data on 41 children who continued lithium treatment for 16 weeks with good results. The mean dose was 27.8 +/- 6.7 mg/kg per day.
Pediatric Acute-Onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome, or PANS, describes a condition in which a child develops acute onset of psychiatric symptoms following an infection. At the 2015 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researcher Tanya K. Murphy reported on symptoms that differentiate PANS from other childhood-onset illnesses. Kids with PANS are more likely to have:
- sudden onset of symptoms
- earlier age of onset
- personality changes
- new onset of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms
- food refusal and weight loss
- behavioral regression
- deterioration in handwriting
- severe sleep disruption
- memory problems
- frequent urination
- dilated pupils
- an infection at the time of onset, particularly a group A streptococcal infection
A child with sudden onset of these symptoms following an infection may have PANS. It is important to differentiate PANS from traditional psychiatric diagnoses because treatment of PANS often consists of antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications, and other treatments that target the immune system. See our case report about a boy with PANS.
At the 2015 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researcher Mary A. Fristad reported that omega-3 fatty acid supplements had a small beneficial effect on depression in children aged 7–14. The supplements did not noticeably improve bipolar disorder not otherwise specified (NOS) or mania. The supplements consisted of several types of omega-3 fatty acids, including 1400mg of EPA, 200mg of DHA, and 400mg of others per day. The children were also undergoing psychotherapy during the study.
At the 2015 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researcher Charles Popper reviewed the literature to date about broad-spectrum micro-nutrient treatments for psychiatric disorders in young people, concluding that these formulations of vitamins and minerals can reduce symptoms of aggressive and disordered conduct, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mood disorders, anxiety, and stress. Four randomized controlled trials showed that micronutrient formulas reduced violence and major misconduct in children.
Popper warned that while these micronutrients can be helpful in treating children who have never been prescribed psychiatric medication, they can interact dangerously with psychiatric medications in children who do take them.
At the same meeting, researcher Bonnie Kaplan reported that six randomized controlled trials of broad-spectrum micro-nutrients and B-complex vitamins in adults with and without psychiatric disorders showed that both of the formulas reduced anxiety and stress following natural disasters (which are associated with the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)).
A statewide program to promote healthy behaviors within families has been successful in Vermont. The approach, described by researcher James J. Hudziak at the 2015 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, is based on three assumptions. The first is that emotional and behavioral health is the cornerstone of all health. The second is that health behaviors are formed and sustained within families. The third is that promoting healthy behaviors, preventing illness, and intervening for better health outcomes are all important to enhancing the health of the population.
Vermont used community outreach (including town-hall public events), the media (including Twitter, blogs, radio, television, public service announcements, and a short film), and group trainings of community professionals to successfully spread health messages to families. The program targeted pediatricians’ offices, schools, community mental health centers, federally qualified health centers, and Departments of Health, Mental Health, and Child Welfare.
Hudziak has also suggested that programs of exercise, music, and mindfulness (all of which enhance brain growth and development) should be made universally available to children in school.