Life experiences such as adversity in childhood have been linked to epigenetic changes to DNA. These changes do not affect the sequence of DNA, but can change how tightly DNA is wound, and thus how easily it is transcribed. One epigenetic change that can occur following adversity in childhood is methylation of the gene for the glucocorticoid receptor (NR3C1). A recent study by Kathryn Ridout and colleagues examined links between early adversity, methylation of this gene, and behavioral problems in childhood. Adversity was linked to methylation of the gene at exons 1D and 1F in the promoter of NR3C1. Methylation of the gene was associated with internalizing behaviors (e.g. depression, anxiety) but not externalizing behaviors (e.g. attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or oppositional defiant disorder) in children of preschool age. The NR3C1 methylation was a significant mediator of the internalizing behaviors in children who had experienced adversity.
Editor’s Note: Similar associations of methylation of the glucocorticoid receptor with childhood adversity have been reported in other clinical and animal studies and provide a mechanism for the long-lasting adverse effects of stressors in childhood.
An oral preparation of lavender oil called Silexan was previously found to reduce anxiety in people with generalized anxiety disorders or subthreshold anxiety symptoms without causing sedation. It seems to work by inhibiting voltage dependent calcium channels in a manner similar to the anti-anxiety drug pregabalin. Unlike pregabalin, the lavender oil treatment also reduced depression in the people with subthreshold anxiety. Researchers are now exploring lavender oil’s effects on rats who exhibit behaviors that resemble human depression, and on rat and human cells in vitro.
Silexan had positive effects on rats with depression-like behaviors, increasing the time they would swim before giving up in a forced swim test. It also increased the growth of rat and human neurons in a lab setting. These effects are usually connected with activation of a protein called CREB that turns on some genes that affect mood. The researchers, led by Walter Mueller, were able to clarify the pathway for this activation by inhibiting specific kinases, enzymes responsible for transferring phosphates across different molecules. The kinases involved included PKA, PI3K, MAPK and CaMK IV.
Editor’s Note: Oral lavender supplements may help improve anxiety and depression without sedation.
Telomeres sit at the end of DNA strands and shorten with each cell replication. Shorter telomeres are associated with aging and an increase in multiple medical and psychiatric disorders. New research draws connections between the production of mitochondrial DNA, telomere length, the experience of childhood adversity, and mental illness.
Researcher Audrey Tyrka and colleagues divided 290 healthy adults into four categories based on whether or not they had experienced adversity in childhood and whether they had been diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The researchers also analyzed the participants’ telomere lengths and the copy number of their mitochondrial DNA. Both stressful events in childhood (such as maltreatment or the loss of a parent) and a history of mental illnesses (depression and anxiety) were associated with shorter telomeres and higher mitochondrial DNA copy numbers, a measure of cellular aging. Substance abuse was associated with higher mitochondrial DNA copy numbers.
Editor’s Note: This research replicates earlier findings that adversity is associated with shortening telomeres. The finding that mitochondrial DNA could play a role in the long-term effects of early life adversity and mental illnesses is new.
Psychotherapy More Effective Than Collaborative Care in Bipolar Depression with Anxiety Disorder Comorbidity
The Systematic Treatment Enhancement Program for Bipolar Disorder (STEP-BD), a long-term study of treatments for bipolar disorder, recently found that psychotherapy was more effective than their normal collaborative care model (consisting of regular illness evaluation and treatment) for patients with bipolar disorder and a current or lifetime presence of an anxiety disorder.
An anxiety disorder comorbidity is consistently associated with a poor outcome in patients with bipolar disorder. In a 2014 article by Deckersbach et al. in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the STEP-BD research group reported that the effect of psychotherapy was particularly strong in those with comorbid post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or generalized anxiety disorder.
While antidepressants are typically used to treat anxiety disorders in unipolar depression, this has not been proven effective in bipolar disorder. Not only do patients with bipolar disorder tend to respond poorly to antidepressants, but in research collected by this editor Robert Post and colleagues in the Bipolar Collaborative Network, patients with bipolar disorder who had an anxiety disorder fared even more poorly on antidepressants as adjuncts to mood stabilizers than those with bipolar disorder without an accompanying anxiety disorder.
The poor response to antidepressants in bipolar depression in general, and particularly in those with a comorbid anxiety disorder, together with the finding that psychotherapy is highly effective, suggest that adjunctive psychotherapy is a more appropriate choice for patients with bipolar depression and a comorbid anxiety disorder.
The choice of the best pharmacological treatment of this comorbid anxiety disorder deserves specific comparative study. Candidates would include the mood stabilizing anticonvulsants valproate, lamotrigine, and carbamazepine; the atypical antipsychotics with efficacy in bipolar depression (quetiapine, lurasidone, and olanzapine combined with fluoxetine); and those used as an adjunct in unipolar depression (quetiapine again and aripiprazole).
Methylene blue is a chemical compound that has been used to treat a variety of medical conditions. This drug has some actions that resemble lithium’s: it inhibits guanylate cyclase, which generates second messenger cyclic GMP, and decreases nitric oxide. New evidence shows it may help depression and anxiety in bipolar disorder when added to lamotrigine.
In patients with bipolar disorder who were all treated with lamotrigine, an active 65mg dose of methylene blue three times per day (for a daily total of 195mg) versus 15mg/day (an inactive dose that produces the same side effect of blue urine) was more effective at treating depression and anxiety in a 12-week crossover study. Side effects, in addition to blue urine, included infrequent nausea, diarrhea, headache, and a burning sensation in the urinary tract. Of the 37 randomized study participants, 27 completed both phases of the entire six-month study. Martin Alda, a researcher who presented the double-blind randomized crossover data at the 2014 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, indicated that he has also used this preparation clinically with success, although the pharmacy staff who prepared the capsules were not too happy, because everything the drug touches turns blue.
An oral preparation of lavender oil called Silexan decreased anxiety significantly more than placebo in a study by S. Kasper et al. published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology in 2014.
This randomized double-blind study of 539 patients with Generalized Anxiety Disorder compared two different doses of Silexan (160 mg and 80 mg) with a 20 mg dose of the antidepressant paroxetine and with placebo. Both doses of Silexan reduced anxiety significantly more than placebo did. While paroxetine performed better than placebo, that result did not reach statistical significance.
Sixty percent of the patients who received the 160 mg dose of Silexan showed reductions of 50% in scores on the Hamilton Anxiety Scale (HAMA). In addition to its anti-anxiety effects, Silexan was associated with an antidepressant effect, improved general mental health, and improvement in health-related quality of life.
Iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutritional deficiency in industrialized countries and can cause problems with cognitive and intellectual development. New research published in the journal BMC Psychiatry shows that it has psychiatric ramifications as well. Children and adolescents with iron deficiency anemia are at greater risk for psychiatric disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and autism.
Iron supplementation should be implemented in children with iron deficiency anemia in order to prevent any possible psychiatric repercussions, and similarly, psychiatrists should check iron levels in young patients with psychiatric disorders.
Iron provides myelin for white matter in the brain and plays a role in the function of neurotransmitters.
In adults with bipolar disorder, adversity in childhood has been associated with an earlier onset of bipolar disorder compared to those who did not experience some form of adversity such as verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, loss of a parent, abandonment, or neglect. At the 2013 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, Nancy Low et al. reported that the number of these stressful life events a child experienced was associated with the number of their anxiety symptoms, psychiatric disorders, and lifetime substance abuse. Having experienced 3 or more adversities was associated with a 3.5-fold increased risk for developing a mood disorder and a 3-fold increase in anxiety disorders and alcohol or drug abuse.
While the study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, the abstract (#194) may be found in the meeting supplement, Volume 73, Number 9S of the journal Biological Psychiatry.
Editor’s Note: Low’s study is the first to report that childhood adversity is a risk factor for the onset of bipolar disorder in the general population.
Given the increasing evidence for the persistence of epigenetic marks on DNA and histones (which can’t change the sequence of genes but can change their structure) in those who have experienced such stressors in childhood, this could provide a mechanism for the long-term vulnerability of these children to the development of mood disorders and a variety of physical illnesses.
The brain consists of 12 billion neurons and four times as many glial cells. Neurons conduct electrical activity, and it is thought that changes in neural activity and synaptic activity (where neurons meet) underlie most behaviors. It was once thought that glia were just fluff, but new research shows that they may play a role in depression.
There are three types of glia: astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and mico-glia. Researcher Mounira Banasr had previously shown that neuronal lesions in the prefrontal cortex of mice did not produce depressive-like behaviors, but glial lesions did.
In a new study presented at a recent scientific meeting, Banasr reported that destroying astrocytes in the prefrontal cortex of mice induced depressive- and anxiety-like deficits. Using a virus that specifically targeted astrocytes, the researchers documented that the depressive behavior was specifically related to loss of astrocytes and not loss of other glial cell types, such as oligodendrocytes or micro-glia.
Editor’s Note: There is evidence of glial abnormalities in patients with mood disorders. Banasr’s research raises the possibility that glial deficits (rather than neuronal alterations) could be crucially involved in depression. In this study, the depressive- and anxiety-like behaviors persisted for 8 days following the astrocyte ablation, but by day 14 the animals had recovered, possibly with the production of a new supply of astrocytes. These data also raise the possibility that targeting the mechanisms of glial dysfunction could be a new avenue to pursue in the therapeutic approaches to depression.
A symposium at the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) examined long-term outcomes of childhood onset disorders, including bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, ADHD, and anxiety disorder.
Course of Childhood Onset Anxiety Disorders
Danny Pine presented a study of 191 adolescents with an anxiety disorder, among whom 36% showed no anxiety disorder in adulthood, while 62% continued to have an anxiety disorder. Among a control population, 390 adolescents without an anxiety disorder remained so in adulthood, while 36 developed new onset of an anxiety disorder in adulthood. Sixty-two of the 98 participants who had anxiety disorders in adulthood had had the disorder continuously from its onset in adolescence. Thus, it appears that approximately two-thirds of adults with an anxiety disorder show a persistence of their childhood onset anxiety disorder, while approximately 1/3 had a new anxiety disorder diagnosis.
Editor’s Note: While all 4 of these major childhood onset psychiatric illnesses (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.