Evidence is growing that stressful events in childhood are associated with an earlier onset of bipolar disorders and a more difficult course of illness than in those who did not experience this type of adversity. Monica Aas and colleagues in Norway have found for the first time that emotional abuse in childhood, especially before age five, also increases risk of bipolar disorder. This study indicates that while bipolar disorder has a genetic component, environmental factors also play a role.
In Norway and France, the research group surveyed patients with bipolar disorder and people in the general population about childhood trauma, including emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional neglect, and physical neglect. Among the almost 800 participants, patients with bipolar disorder were twice as likely as control participants to have experienced multiple types of trauma. However, emotional abuse was the only factor specifically linked to bipolar disorder. People who were emotionally abused in childhood were more than twice as likely to develop bipolar disorder in adulthood. Moreover, the more severe the emotional abuse, the more likely it was that a child would go on to develop bipolar disorder.
Among the adults with bipolar disorder, emotional abuse and sexual abuse in childhood predicted younger age of illness onset, more suicide attempts, more rapid cycling, and greater proneness to depression. Emotional or sexual abuse were linked to the most suicide attempts, and sexual abuse was linked to rapid cycling.
More trauma in childhood was also linked to affective instability in adults. Aas’ research was presented at the 14th International Congress on Schizophrenia Research.
At a symposium celebrating the retirement of Willem Nolen, a researcher who spent 40 years studying unipolar and bipolar disorder, from his position at Groningen Hospital in the Netherlands, his colleague Jules Angst discussed some recent findings. Angst is perhaps the world’s leading authority on the long-term course of unipolar and bipolar disorders based on his multiple prospective follow-up studies, some lasting 20-30 years.
The Sensitization-Kindling Model
Angst described evidence that supports the sensitization-kindling model of recurrent mood disorders, which this editor (Robert Post) described in 1992. Episodes tend to recur faster over time, i.e. the well interval between episodes becomes progressively shorter. While stressors often precipitate initial episodes, after multiple occurrences, episodes also begin to occur spontaneously (in the absence of apparent stressors).
This type of progressive increase in response to repetition of the same stimulus was most clearly seen in animal studies, where repeated daily electrical stimulation of the amygdala eventually produced major motor seizures (i.e. amygdala kindling). Daily electrical stimulation of rodents’ amygdala for one second initially produced no behavioral change, but eventually, minor and then full-blown seizures emerged. Once enough of the stimulated full-blown amygdala-kindled seizures had occurred, seizures began to occur spontaneously (i.e. in the absence of the triggering stimulation).
The analogy to human mood disorders is indirect, but kindling provides a model not only for how repeated triggers eventually result in full-blown depressive episodes, but also for how these triggered depressive episodes may eventually occur spontaneously as well.
Long-Term Treatment of Mood Disorders
Angst also discussed long-term treatment of mood disorders. He has found that long-term lithium treatment not only reduces suicides in patients with bipolar disorder, but also reduces the medical mortality that accompanies bipolar disorder.
Angst noted his previous surprising observations that in unipolar disorder, long-term maintenance treatment, even with low doses of tricyclic antidepressants, prevents suicide. Previously, researchers Ellen Frank and David Kupfer of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center had found that when patients with recurrent unipolar depression who had been stable for 5 years on the tricyclic antidepressant nortriptyline were blindly switched to half their original dose, about 90% rapidly relapsed into a new episode of depression. Their data helped establish the prevailing view that maintenance treatment with the full-dose regimen required to achieve a good initial acute response is also the optimal approach to long-term continuation and prophylactic treatment.
Angst found good results even at low doses, but his data may not be in conflict with Frank and Kupfer’s, as a person who responds well acutely to low doses may also be able to maintain good enough response to them to prevent recurrences in the long term.
Incidence of Bipolar Disorder in Adolescents Similar to Incidence in Adults
Angst also presented data from the Adolescent Supplement to the National Comorbidity Study (NCS-A), which analyzed interviews with approximately 10,000 adolescents (aged 13-17) in the US. He found a 7.6% incidence of major depression, a 2.5% incidence of bipolar I or II disorder, and a 1.7% incidence of mania. There was an even higher incidence of sub-threshold bipolar disorder, when there are not enough symptoms or a long enough duration of symptomatology to meet diagnostic criteria for bipolar I or II disorder. These data published by Merikangas et al. in 2009 provide clear epidemiological data that there is a substantial incidence of bipolar disorder in adolescents in the US, roughly similar to that seen in adults.
At a symposium celebrating the retirement of Willem Nolen, a researcher who spent 40 years studying unipolar and bipolar disorder, from his position at Groningen Hospital in the Netherlands, this editor (Robert Post) discussed progress in the treatment of bipolar disorder over the past 40 years. Despite the availability of lithium; many new mood stabilizers (carbamazepine, valproate, lamotrigine); and many atypical antipsychotics, all of which are anti-manic and some of which are antidepressant (quetiapine and lurasidone), there is still a very high rate of continued illness and treatment resistance, especially in the US.
In fact, research from the Bipolar Collaborative Network, a treatment research network including sites around the US (one run by this editor) and in Germany and the Netherlands, shows that almost everything about bipolar disorder is worse in the US. Americans have more genetic vulnerability because more of their parents have bipolar disorder, and they are more likely to have environmental vulnerability as a result of childhood adversity. Patients in the US also reported having had more stressors at the onset of their illness and more stressors prior to the last episode they had before entering the network at an average age of 40.
Age at illness onset is much lower in the US than in the Netherlands and Germany. About two-thirds of American patients had onset in childhood or adolescence (under 19 years), while only about one-third of the European patients in this study showed these early onsets.
The course of illness is also more difficult in the US. There is more anxiety, substance abuse, and medical comorbidity, and there are more episodes and more rapid cycling. All this resulted in more US patients than European ones who did not respond to naturalistic treatment in our treatment network despite being prescribed multiple medications.
The implication of these data is that we need a new and more concerted approach to bipolar disorder in the US, beginning with early diagnosis and treatment during childhood and adolescence, instead of the 10- to 15-year average delay that was typical about twenty years ago. The duration of the delay to first treatment with a drug to treat mania or depression was an independent predictor of a worse outcome in adulthood. Early intervention should also include therapy and education.
Family-Focused Treatment (FFT), a method pioneered by researchers David Miklowitz and Kiki Chang, has been shown to be much more effective than treatment as usual in children who are at high risk for developing bipolar disorder because they have a family history of the illness and symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder or bipolar not otherwise specified (BP-NOS). In this way it may even be possible to head off the full-blown illness before it starts in those children at highest risk.
- Support Pregnant Women with Bipolar Disorder
A. Depression during pregnancy is more common among women with bipolar disorder than among controls–consider cognitive behavioral therapy, omega-3 fatty acids, folate, & rTMS
B. 52% incidence of post-partum depression (3x higher than controls)–Monitor closely and treat accordingly
- Ask Your Affectively Ill Patients About Their Children
- Encourage Good Diet and Exercise in These Children
- Encourage Watchful Waiting in Families with Children at High Risk
- If a Child becomes Symptomatic, Suggest:
A. Family Focused Therapy (FFT), or other Family-Based Treatment
B. Low-Risk Interventions Like Nutrition and Sleep Hygiene
- If a Child Develops BP-NOS, Encourage:
A. Mainstream Pharmacotherapy
B. Increased Social Support (Family, Friends, Advocacy)
- If a Child Develops BP-I, Encourage Ongoing Monitoring & Medication
- If an Adolescent Becomes Manic, Educate About Substance Abuse and Attempt Primary Prevention of a Substance Abuse Disorder
Our editor Robert M. Post recommends that in the absence of good care in the community for children at high risk for bipolar disorder because a parent has the disorder, adult psychiatrists of parents with bipolar disorder who have children with the disorder should fill this gap by treating the children themselves. If the child has only early symptoms, family focused therapy as developed by David Miklowitz would be recommended.
Here are some other suggestions in addition to family focused therapy:
- Good Diet, Exercise, Sleep Hygiene
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Check Vitamin D3 levels and Add Supplement if Needed
- Melatonin for Insomnia
- N-acetylcysteine (NAC) for Irritability (as in studies of children with autism spectrum disorders)
- Folate for Depression and/or Elevated Homocysteine
- Check for Evidence of Inflammation (Increased IL-6 or CRP)
Options with Some Side Effects:
- Minocycline (an anti-inflammatory neuroprotective antibiotic)
Our editor Robert M. Post served as discussant at a symposium on special topics in bipolar disorder at the 2013 meeting of the American Psychiatic Association. Here are some of the findings that were presented at the symposium.
Michael Gitlin of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) emphasized the importance of treating patients until remission in order to achieve functional recovery and prevent cognitive impairment.
Michael Bauer of Dresden, Germany reviewed data showing that early onset of the illness and long delays to first treatment are important predictors of poor response to treatment.
Mark Frye of the Mayo Clinic discussed the promise of pharmacogenomics to aid in the selection of the best medicine for a given individual (i.e. personalized medicine). Currently the presence of one of a few relatively rare gene variations—HLA-B 1502 (in Asian populations) and HLA-A 3101 (in European populations)—can predict that an individual may develop a severe rash when taking the anticonvulsant carbamazepine. Researcher J. Rybakowski has found that a somewhat common variant in the gene responsible for producing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (the val-66-met allele for proBDNF) is associated with a good response to lithium. This may be explained by the fact that lithium increases BDNF, and this could be crucial in those with the val-66-met allele, which functions less efficiently than the more common and better functioning allele val-66-val.
David Miklowitz, also of UCLA, reviewed data that strongly indicates psychotherapy is effective in the treatment and prevention of bipolar depression. He and Kiki Chang of Stanford University found that family focused therapy (FFT) was effective in treating early syndromes that sometimes lead to bipolar disorder (including depression, anxiety, or BP-NOS) in children at high risk for bipolar disorder because of a family history that includes bipolar disorder in a first degree relative. Yesterday we shared the 8 key ingredients to family focused therapy.
In his discussion, Post emphasized several points from each presentation. Among these was the recommendation by both Gitlin and Bauer that patients use a personal calendar to monitor symptoms and side effects. (We offer an easy download of a personal calendar.)
Post also endorsed Bauer’s emphasis on the need for early intervention, since delay to first treatment is an independent risk factor for a poor outcome in adulthood. (This finding has been replicated in three studies — Franchini et al. in 1999, Post et al. in 2010, and Drancourt et al. in 2012.
Each of these factors and family focused therapy need greater attention in the US, since Post noted that all aspects of bipolar disorder are more difficult for patients in the US compared to those in Germany, the Netherlands, and many other European countries. About two-thirds of the adults with bipolar disorder in the US had onset of the illness before age 19, while in most European countries, only about one-third of adult patients had an early onset. These data are also consistent with the low incidence of bipolar disorder in children at high risk for the disorder because of a parent with bipolar disorder in studies from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany. In contrast, similar studies of children with at least on parent diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the US (by Chang et al., Nurnberger et al., Wozniak et al., and Birmaher et al.) show a higher incidence of the illness. Canadian studies by Duffy et al. and studies of an isolated Amish community in Pennsylvania by Egeland et al. show a low incidence much like the Europeans.
Given the great need for care of children with signs of bipolar disorder in the US and the shortage of child psychiatrists and pediatricians knowledgeable about bipolar disorder, Post recommended that in the absence of other alternatives, adult psychiatrists of parents with bipolar disorder who have children with the disorder should fill this gap by treating the children themselves. If the child has only early symptoms, family focused therapy as described by Miklowitz above would be recommended.
Tomorrow and Friday we’ll share tables with recommendations for the treatment of parents with bipolar disorder and their children.
Family focused therapy (FFT), developed by David Miklowitz, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been effective in treating early syndromes that sometimes lead to bipolar disorder (including depression, anxiety, or BP-NOS) in children at high risk for bipolar disorder because of a family history that includes bipolar disorder in a first degree relative. There are 8 key ingredients to family focused therapy.
- Consistent monitoring of the illness and developing an early warning system with a plan for responding if early symptoms emerge
- Stress management
- Development of a relapse prevention plan
- Emphasis on sleep hygiene and the importance of regular sleep patterns
- Work on medication adherence
- Development of self-regulatory skills
- Improvement of family relationships
- Avoidance of substances of abuse
David Bond presented research at the 2013 meeting of the International Society of Bipolar Disorder about the connections between obesity and the course of bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder has some of the highest rates of obesity among all psychiatric illnesses. Obese patients with bipolar disorder have more episodes of depression, more suicide attempts, worse response to psychiatric medications, and more cognitive impairment between episodes of illness.
Bond also found that higher body mass index (BMI) was associated with reduced white and gray matter volume in the brain, greater cognitive impairment, increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and increased glutamate concentration in the hippocampus (which is potentially neurotoxic) and decreased NAA (a marker of neuronal integrity). Those with 7% weight gain or higher in the first year of treatment show a greater loss of volume in the frontal and temporal lobes.
Editor’s Note: These data again speak to the importance of maintaining good lifestyle habits such as proper diet and exercise to attempt to slow or prevent the development of obesity. Also avoiding medications for bipolar disorder with the greatest liability for weight gain and using some that can help with weight loss would be good topics for discussion with a treating physician.
Here are some suggestions from BNN Editor-in-Chief Robert M. Post, MD for preventing cognitive decline in patients with bipolar disorder.
1. Prevent Episodes with Long-term Prophylaxis
2. Remove Sedating or Impairing Drugs
3. Add Folate to Decrease Homocysteine
4. Treat Depression to Remission
5. Consider Adding:
a. Bupropion (Wellbutrin) for Mood and ADHD
b. Modafinil (Provigil) for Attention and ADHD
c. A Stimulant for ADHD
6. Add Lithium at 150mg/day for Neuroprotection in Mild Cognitive Impairment
7. Add Levitiracetam at 125mg/day to Decrease Hippocampal Hyperactivity
8. Treat Dementia Symptoms Early with:
a. Memantine (Namenda) AND/OR
b. Acetylcholine Esterase Inhibitors Such As Donepezil (Aricept)
9. Consider Adding an Anti-inflammatory Agent
There is some evidence that lithium can affect brain structure, particularly the size of various parts of the brain. A study by Hajek et al. presented at the 2013 meeting of the International Society of Bipolar Disorders examined patients with bipolar disorder who had either received lithium for at least two years (37 patients) or had received under three months of treatment with lithium (19 patients), and compared the size of the hippocampus in these two groups and one control group (50 people). The patients with bipolar disorder all had the disorder for at least 10 years (25 years on average) and had had a minimum of five episodes.
Those treated with lithium long-term had greater hippocampal volume than the non-lithium patients (despite having spent more time in episodes of illness), and equal volume to healthy controls. Measurements were collected via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and analyses were done two different ways to avoid being confounded by the changes lithium may have on water balance in the brain, a phenomenon that was recently found to affect MRI images.
Editor’s Note: These data add to the large number of studies in animals and humans indicating that lithium, in addition to preventing episodes and suicides, may have neurotrophic and neuroprotective effects.