This editor (RM Post) in collaboration with Jacqueline Fleming and Flavio Kapczinski published the article “Neurobiological mechanisms of illness progression in the recurrent affective disorders” in the Journal of Psychiatric Research this year. The article built on several themes about the progression of bipolar illness that had been explored in previous research.
These themes include:
- The likely acceleration of repeated episodes as a function of the number of prior episodes (episode sensitization)
- The increased responsivity of the illness to repeated stressors (stress sensitization)
- The increased behavioral reactivity to repeated use of psychomotor stimulants such as cocaine (stimulant-induced behavioral sensitization)
Not only are these observations well documented in the scientific literature, but recent observations also suggest that each type of sensitization can show cross-sensitization to the other two types. That is, individuals exposed to repeated stressors are more likely both to experience affective illness episodes and to adopt comorbid substance abuse. In a similar way, episodes of an affective disorder and stressors may also be associated with the relapse into drug administration in those who have been abstinent.
In addition to these mechanisms of illness progression in the recurrent affective disorders, the new article reviews the literature showing that the number of affective episodes or the duration of the illness appear to be associated with a variety of other clinical and neurobiological variables.
The number of affective episodes a patient experiences is associated with the degree of cognitive dysfunction present in their bipolar illness, and experiencing more than 4 episodes of unipolar or bipolar depression is a risk factor for dementia in late life. A relative lack of response to most treatments is also correlated with the number of prior episodes, and this holds true for response to naturalistic treatment in general. While most of these data are correlational and the direction of causality cannot be ascertained for certain, it is likely that the number of affective episodes and/or their duration could account for and drive difficulties with treatment and with cognitive function.
If this were the case, one would expect to see a variety of neurobiological correlates with the number of prior episodes or duration of illness, and in the article we summarize those that have been found in unipolar and bipolar disorder. Considerable data indicate that cortical volume and degrees of prefrontal cortical dysfunction can vary as a function of number of prior episodes. There is evidence that increased activity of the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens are also related to episodes or duration of illness. In those with unipolar depression, the volume of the hippocampus is decreased with longer duration of illness. Read more
At the 5th Biennial Conference of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders and the 67th Annual Meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, John Kelsoe presented his research on personalized pharmacotherapy for bipolar disorder, describing genetic predictors of response to lithium.
In his research Kelsoe found that a variant of the gene that codes for neurotrophic receptor type II (NTRK2), the receptor for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), was associated with good response to lithium in patients with a family history of bipolar disorder or a history of euphoric mania. The “T” allele of rs1387923 was associated with better response to lithium retrospectively, and these results were replicated in a prospective study.
Editors Note: These data are among the first to indicate that genetic information could be used to make treatment decisions. Lithium increases BDNF and neurogenesis, thus it makes some sense that a variation in the BDNF receptor would affect clinical responsiveness to lithium.
In a similar vein, Janusz K. Rybakowski reported at the Society of Biological Psychiatry meeting on another possible predictor of long-term excellent response to lithium in bipolar disorder. Due to normal genetic variation, different people have different versions of BDNF. Rybakowski found that the patients with a version of BDNF known as Val66Val who had bipolar disorder performed significantly better on the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, which evaluates abstract reasoning. However, he found that patients with a methionine amino acid in the place of one of the valine amino acids (resulting in a Val66Met allele, which is associated with minor cognitive difficulties) showed significantly better response to preventative treatment with lithium. It is noteworthy that these excellent lithium responders also performed better on a complex neuropsychological battery than those who were less good responders to lithium. The good responders’ performance on these tests was not different from healthy controls.
Editor’s Note: These data add to the possibility that prediction of lithium response is linked to common gene variations in neuroprotective factors or their receptors. It is interesting that the patients with the Val66Met allele, which works less efficiently, show the best long-term response to lithium. This is consistent with the view that lithium, which increases BDNF, is most effective in those who have a sluggish functioning of their BDNF due to having the Met allele. As we have written before, those with the Met allele have slight decrements in working memory, and in animal models, those with the Met allele show deficits in long-term potentiation (LTP), which suggest problems with long-term memory. Thus, using lithium to increase BDNF function in those with a “sluggish” variation in their BDNF makes sense and may ultimately be clinically useful.
In a review article in the Neuroscientist published in February of this year, Kirk I. Erickson and collaborators wrote that “[m]ajor depressive disorder is considered a risk factor for Alzheimer’s dementia and memory impairment and is associated with less BDNF and greater hippocampal atrophy, possibly through a BDNF pathway. However, exercise and effective treatment for geriatric depression increases BDNF levels, increases serotonin fibers, is associated with greater hippocampal volumes, and reduces the risk for Alzheimer’s dementia.”
Editor’s note: Not a bad set of benefits from exercise! The researchers suggest that exercise is extremely important in reversing the decreases in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) associated with depression, helping to improve depressed mood, increasing cardiovascular fitness, and maintaining healthy cognition.
Hippocampal volume and BDNF levels in blood both decrease with age. Yet exercise increases both BDNF and the formation of new neurons (neurogenesis) in animals. New data in humans suggest that aerobic fitness is associated with the size of the hippocampus, both in both children and adults. It is not clear yet whether this increase in hippocampal volume is directly driven by increases in BDNF and/or neurogenesis. However, since a smaller hippocampus is a risk factor both for depression and for mild cognitive impairment progressing to Alzheimer’s dementia, attempting to enhance hippocampal volume in any way possible is probably a good idea.
Methods of increasing hippocampal volume include treatment with antidepressants or with lithium. In the 2012 paper Erickson and collaborators also wrote, “Anaerobic exercise enhances executive and memory function and reduces hippocampal atrophy in late adulthood, and this may be partially mediated through a BDNF pathway.”
Erickson and collaborators conducted a longitudinal study published in 2010 that quantified the amount of physical activity subjects engaged in by calculating the total number of blocks walked per week. Individuals reporting greater amounts of physical activity at the beginning of the study had, upon examination nine years later, greater gray matter volume in several parts of the brain, including the hippocampus. This effect was “dose-dependent,” meaning that only those individuals who walked at least 72 blocks per week (roughly equivalent to 1 mile per day) had significant sparing of brain tissue nine years later. The study found increased gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex and in the temporal lobe.
After a further follow-up of four more years, greater gray matter volume with physical activity was associated with a two-fold reduced risk of cognitive impairment. The researchers concluded that “physical activity patterns earlier in life were linked to brain volume and cognitive impairment later in life.”
There are a number of important points to remember about cognitive impairment. One is that increasing hippocampal volume and preventing its decrement with aging may help prevent age-related memory loss and potentially the rapidity at which mild cognitive impairment progresses. Read more
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) protects neurons and is important for long-term learning and memory. There are several genetic variations in BDNF depending on which amino acid—valine or methionine—falls at a particular position when the proBDNF protein is being made. Most people have the val-66-val allele, some have the val-66-met, and a few have the met-66-met allele.
Researcher Jessica C. Levenson, working with David Kupfer and Ellen Frank at the University of Pittsburgh, reported at the 51st Annual Meeting of the National Institute of Mental Health’s New Clinical Drug Evaluation Unit (NCDEU) in 2011 that patients with unipolar depression who have the val-66-val allele of proBDNF have better clinical responsiveness to antidepressants than those with the slightly less common variant, val-66-met.
Editor’s note: The val-66-val allele is more effective in enhancing synaptic plasticity and is more easily transported from the nucleus to the dendrites of neurons (where it is necessary for learning and memory) than the val-66-met allele or the least effective met-66-met variant.
These findings are intriguing because antidepressant treatments tend to increase BDNF, regardless of their mechanisms of action. Moreover, BDNF levels are low in patients with depression, usually in direct relationship to the severity of depression. Thus, the ability of antidepressants to increase BDNF may lead to a more effective treatment response in those with the better functioning val-66-val allele of BDNF. This remains to be further documented, but the study provides a preliminary example of how genotyping may eventually be able to help predict individual clinical response to a given treatment and thus foster the development of personalized medicine.
At the 51st Annual Meeting of the National Institute of Mental Health’s New Clinical Drug Evaluation Unit (NCDEU) in 2011, Walter Swardfager and colleagues from Toronto, Ontario presented a study indicating that brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) concentrations in blood are associated with cognitive performance and cardiopulmonary fitness in people with coronary artery disease.
In 88 mostly male subjects with a mean age of 63 years, cardiopulmonary fitness was directly correlated with BDNF in blood as well as higher scores of cognition on two tests, the mini mental status exam and the digit symbol coding task. The investigators concluded that better fitness, psychomotor processing speed, and overall cognition were consistent with a hypothesis that BDNF protects midbrain dopaminergic neurons against inflammatory neurodegenerative processes.
Blood levels of interleukin 6, a measure of inflammatory cytokines, were associated with lower mini mental status scores in a multivariate analysis that controlled for BDNF levels.
Editor’s note: BDNF appears to be necessary for long-term learning and memory. Meta-analyses indicate that BDNF levels are low in depression and improve with euthymia. Many mood stabilizers including lithium, valproate, carbamazepine, and lamotrigine and most types of antidepressants are able to increase BDNF. The current findings linking BDNF with better cardiopulmonary fitness and cognition continue to emphasize the potential importance of BDNF beyond its role as a marker for depression.
In BNN Volume 12, Issue 3 from 2008, we reported on the data of Schmidt and Duman, which indicated that BDNF administered in a subcutaneous minipump is able to reverse many depressive-like behaviors in an animal model of depression, suggesting that even peripheral BDNF may have a role in the central nervous system.
Anil Malhotra from the Zucker Hillside Hospital found that pramipexole (Mirapex), a dopamine D2 and D3 agonist used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, improved measures of processing speed and working memory in euthymic bipolar patients (whose average age was 42) when compared with placebo in an adjunctive clinical trial.
Editor’s Note: Bipolar patients in a euthymic phase have consistently been shown to have some degree of cognitive dysfunction that is typically correlated with the number of prior depressive and/or manic episodes they have experienced. This is one of the first studies to directly target this cognitive dysfunction with a pharmacotherapeutic agent.
Pramipexole may be of additional value among depressed patients, because in two small, placebo-controlled studies, one led by Carlos Zarate at the National Institute of Mental Health and one led by Joseph F. Goldberg in New York, pramipexole has been shown to exert acute antidepressant effects in bipolar patients in the depressive phase of the illness. The new data from Malhotra raise the possibility that there could be a two-for-one benefit when pramipexole is used in the depressive phase of bipolar illness—improvement in both depression and cognition.
Other approaches to improving cognition in patients with bipolar disorder
A number of studies presented at the 4th Biennial Conference of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil in March reported new data relevant to inflammation and oxidative stress. Both inflammation and oxidative stress increase risk of cardiovascular disorders, and patients with inadequately treated mood disorders lose 10 or more years of life expectancy from cardiovascular disorders compared to the general population. Inflammation and oxidative stress may also contribute to the symptoms, evolution, and progression of the mood disorders themselves.
It is possible that these two processes could become new targets for therapeutic intervention in addition to more traditional psychopharmacological drugs that primarily target the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and the neurotrophic factor BDNF. Read more
It has been thought that one fundamental principle of genetics is that the impact of environment factors cannot be passed from one generation to the next via the genetic code. New data suggest this may not be true.
In an emerging field called epigenetics, researchers are finding that while the impact of environment and life experiences is not registered in DNA sequences, environmental factors can influence the structure of DNA or tightness of its packaging. Early life experiences, particularly psychosocial stress, can lead to the accumulation of methyl groups on DNA (a process called methylation), which generally constricts DNA’s ability to start transcription (turning on) of genes and the synthesis of the proteins the genes encode. DNA is tightly wound around proteins called histones, which can also be methylated or acetylated based on events in the environment. When histones are acetylated, meaning that acetyl groups are attached to them, DNA is wound around them more loosely, facilitating gene transcription (i.e. the reading out of the DNA code into messenger RNA, which then arranges amino acids in order to construct proteins). Conversely, histone methylation usually tightens the winding of DNA and represses transcription.
In a study of rodents exposed to stress (by being forced to enter another rodent’s territory) and given the opportunity to self-administer cocaine, those exposed to a few brief episodes of stress increased their cocaine use and engaged in binge-like episodes, while those exposed to stress chronically showed suppressed cocaine use.
At the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology meeting in December 2009, Klaus Miczek and colleagues from Tufts University in Boston presented a fascinating study indicating that the temporal aspects of the experience of social stress may have dramatic impact not only on defeat stress behaviors and the associated biochemistry, but also on the likelihood that an animal adopts cocaine self-administration. These investigators compared episodic versus chronic defeat stress in rodents.
Episodic social defeat stress consisted of four brief confrontations between an intruding animal and an aggressive resident rat over the course of a period of ten days. In contrast, chronic subordination stress involved the continuous exposure of the intruder rat to an aggressive resident over five weeks, during which time the intruder lived in a protective cage within the resident’s home cage.
The episodically defeated intruder rats showed increases in intravenous cocaine self-administration and prolonged binge-like episodes, along with increases in brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is necessary for long-term learning and memory, in the midbrain ventral-tegmental area (VTA) and increased dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens, the reward area of the brain. In contrast, the continuously subordinate rats showed the opposite pattern of suppressed cocaine intake, suppression of dopamine release in the n. accumbens, and reduced BDNF in the VTA.
The atypical antipsychotic quetiapine (Seroquel or Seroquel XR) has a range of efficacy in a number of illnesses, depending on the size of the dose given. Read about some of its uses below, including as an adjunct to antidepressants in unipolar depression; as a treatment for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); and, at higher doses, as a treatment for mania and depression. Some of its potential mechanisms of action are described as well.
Quetiapine as an adjunct to antidepressants in unipolar depression
Posters at the American Psychiatric Association meeting in San Francisco in May 2009 showed new data from a series of studies of quetiapine in unipolar depression that showed the drug in monotherapy (at 150mg & 300mg) was significantly more effective than placebo. Studies were also positive when quetiapine was used as an adjunct compared with placebo for patients showing inadequate or incomplete responses to antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).