The anesthetic ketamine given intranasally may help children with a certain type of bipolar disorder. In an article published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2013, Demetri Papolos et al. reported seeing marked improvement in a subgroup of 12 children aged 6 to 19 years of age who were nonresponsive to the usual treatment regimens of lithium, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotics. Papolos has described these children as having the “fear of harm (FOH) subtype.” In addition to having typical mood swings, these children also have a fear of aggression, separation anxiety, sleep and circadian rhythm disorders, nightmares, thermoregulatory problems, and carbohydrate craving.
Ketamine was given as an intranasal spray using an inhaler in 10mg doses. Doses were increased until the targeted symptoms remitted. Average doses ranged from 30mg to 120mg, given every 3 to 7 days. All symptom areas including depression and mania improved markedly, usually within a few hours, and this improvement lasted 3 to 4 days. Four types of aggression (measured on the Overt Aggression Scale) decreased significantly.
There were some dissociative side effects that were usually mild to moderate, but occasionally severe. They resolved spontaneously, usually within the first hour after treatment, and there appeared to be tolerance to them following repeated administration.
The authors urged caution until findings from these cases are confirmed by more controlled studies, but they concluded that the magnitude and rapidity of effects in these children with treatment resistant bipolar disorder suggested effectiveness and safety.
The risk of having a depressive episode during pregnancy compared to afterward have not often been studied. A 2011 review article by Viguera et al. in the American Journal of Psychiatry compared rates of affective episodes among women with bipolar I and II disorders and recurrent major depressive disorder, both during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Risks were higher for women with bipolar disorder.
Among women with bipolar disorder, 23% experienced mood episodes during the pregnancy, while 52% had an episode in the months after giving birth. Among women with unipolar depression, 4.6% had a mood episode during pregnancy, while 30% did during the postpartum period, which is about double the risk seen in the general population. Depression was the most common type of morbidity the women experienced before and after giving birth.
Risk factors associated with mood episodes during pregnancy included (in descending order): younger age at illness onset, previous postpartum episodes, fewer years of illness, bipolar disorder, fewer children, and not being married. Risk factors associated with postpartum episodes included: younger age at illness onset, illness during pregnancy, bipolar disorder, fewer children, and more education.
Editor’s Note: The risk of postpartum depression increases from 15% in the general population, to 30% among women with unipolar disorder, to 50% in women with bipolar disorder. Special precautions should be taken to monitor and treat depression during and after pregnancy, in all women but particularly in those with a prior history of unipolar or bipolar disorder.
A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2012 sampled over one million births in Sweden and suggested that preterm birth (from 32 to 36 weeks) doubled the risk that a child would develop bipolar disorder later in life. Those born even earlier had a sevenfold increased risk for bipolar disorder.
Editor’s Note: A robust research literature indicates that schizophrenia is related to obstetrical and other pre- and perinatal medical problems. Now it seems bipolar disorder may be as well, with some caveats. Low Apgar score (which indicates difficulties at birth) and delayed growth were not found to relate to bipolar risk. Thus something about the shortened preterm development seems to convey the risk. The authors suggest that there may be different types of factors that predispose a person to develop bipolar disorder, and that in some people the illness may have development origins.
These data also fit with observations that only about 50% of patients with bipolar disorder have a positive family history of the illness. Thus, while bipolar disorder does run in families and has a strong genetic basis in many instances, there are many people who develop the illness without having this genetic/familial risk. Very preterm birth appears to be one other contributing risk factor, presumably among many others. Understanding the neurobiological mechanisms occurring before birth that mediate this risk may lead to direct preventive measures to lessen the risk. In the meantime, traditional measures supporting good maternal and fetal health are a good place to start. These include regular prenatal checkups, good nutrition, and prenatal vitamins that include high doses of folic acid.
At the 5th Biennial Conference of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, H. Sugawara and colleagues reported on a particular example of epigenetics, an emerging field that studies ways that events and substances in the environment affect the structure of DNA. Often methyl or acetyl groups attach to DNA, making it easier or more difficult to transcribe. Sugawara’s group discussed hypermethylation of the serotonin transporter gene in bipolar disorder in an analysis of monozygotic twins discordant for bipolar disorder.
Monozygotic (identical) twins are highly concordant for bipolar disorder, meaning if one has the illness the other is likely to, but this does not occur 100% of the time. Thus, environmental or epigenetic mechanisms could account for the lack of genetic transmission of the illness in the odd cases in which one twin does not develop the illness.
Sugawara’s research group found that DNA hypermethylation of the allele encoding the serotonin transporter occurred in the twins with bipolar illness but not in those without. Once the expression of this particular gene had been identified as a difference between twins with and without bipolar disorder, the researchers examined the gene in non-twin patients with bipolar disorder compared to healthy controls and confirmed that people with bipolar disorder were more likely to have the hypermethylated allele.
The researchers believed that carrying a short form of the serotonin transporter was associated with DNA hypermethylation, and they went on to study the expression of mRNA for the transporter in bipolar patients carrying the short form of the allele. They found that DNA methylation was also higher at the serotonin transporter site in postmortem brains of bipolar patients.
Editor’s Note: This study provides one of the first insights into possible environmental mechanisms that explain why some people at risk for bipolar disorder develop the illness and others do not. Another possible mechanism for differential expression of the illness has been suggested by E.F. Torrey and colleagues, who believe that a viral infection may enter an individual’s genome and directly alter DNA sequences. The current data from Sugawara’s research group suggest the importance of further study of the serotonin transporter site in bipolar disorder and the mechanistic reasons for the DNA hypermethylation that occurs there.
A 30-year observational study published by Andrew Leon and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry has found that anticonvulsants used in epilepsy and for bipolar depression (carbamazepine, lamotrigine, and valproate) do not increase suicidal behavior in bipolar patients.
Editor’s Note: The FDA gave a warning in 2009 that these anticonvulsants were associated with suicidal ideation. This was based on studies of a mixed group of psychiatry and neurological patients in acute placebo-controlled studies, where suicidal ideation is typically a reason for exclusion from the study. Leon et al. used more powerful longitudinal methods to compare the risk of suicidal ideation in individuals taking and not taking anticonvulsants and found no such increase in suicidal behavior.
This is like the FDA warning for antidepressants and suicide, which was based on data from placebo-controlled clinical trials in acute depression (where suicidal patients are excluded). When investigators used the same longitudinal methods as Leon et al. in the anticonvulsant study, they found that antidepressants actually reduced suicidal behavior by 30%.
The bottom line is that the use of anticonvulsants for bipolar disorder should not be discouraged based on the FDA warning about suicidal ideation in mixed neurological and psychiatric patients. In bipolar patients, anticonvulsants do not increase the risk of suicidal behaviors, i.e. suicidal acts or completed suicides.
At the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), Melissa P. DelBello presented a poster on the design of a maintenance study in bipolar youth to determine characteristics of patients who stabilized on adjunctive lamotrigine. The study included children aged 10 to 17 who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Of a total 244 potential subjects, 160 individuals or 66% stabilized on lamotrigine during the open (not blind) portion of the study. Of these, 143 were randomized to either lamotrigine continuation or placebo.
Seventeen participants did not enter the randomized phase of the study, primarily because of withdrawal of consent, presumably because they were reluctant to be placed in the placebo group. The authors concluded that a study design involving randomization to medication continuation versus withdrawal with placebo substitution could underestimate the true level of treatment response.
However, the high stabilization rate of 66% using adjunctive lamotrigine in the open phase of the study suggests that the drug is effective. Clearly confirmation of this in the double-blind randomized phase is needed to confirm this prediction.
Adults with bipolar disorder have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and premature death from cardiovascular illness than the general population. At the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Benjamin Goldstein presented a poster in which he showed that youth with bipolar disorder may also have abnormal cardiovascular function.
When a tourniquet is applied, blood vessels normally expand to make up for the period of oxygen deprivation. This does not happen as readily in patients with mood disorders. This lack of flexibility and compensatory response could be one of the reasons for increased cardiovascular difficulties in those with mood disorders.
In Goldstein’s study, noninvasive ultrasound imaging was used to measure the thickness of the walls of the carotid artery and flow mediated dilation of the artery in adolescents with bipolar disorder and those without the illness. The data was collected by a certified ultrasound technologist who remained blind to the patients’ diagnostic and symptom status.
Goldstein found highly abnormal results in 14 adolescents aged 14 to 19 with bipolar disorder compared to controls. He concluded that reducing cardiovascular risk in bipolar disorder is a pressing clinical and public health challenge and that treating these patients while they are adolescents may offer considerable advantages both for prevention and for understanding the progression of cardiovascular problems in patients with bipolar disorder.
There is considerable evidence that children with bipolar disorder have smaller amygdalas, and the amygdala also appears to be hyper-reactive when these children perform facial emotion recognition tasks. A symposium on longitudinal imaging studies in pediatric bipolar disorder was held at the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry to shed light on other brain abnormalities in these children.
Researcher Nancy Aldeman reported that there is some evidence children with bipolar disorder have decreased gray matter volume in parts of the brain including the subgenual cingulate gyrus, the orbital frontal cortex, and the superior temporal gyrus, as well as the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and amygdala. At the same time there is evidence of increased size of the basal ganglia. These abnormalities do not appear to precede the onset of the illness.
Some changes occur over the course of the illness. The basal ganglia seem to increase in volume in patients with bipolar disorder, but decrease in volume in those with severe mood dysregulation and comorbid ADHD. Moreover, parietal cortex and precuneus cortex volumes appeared to increase in children with bipolar disorder while decreasing or staying the same in normal volunteer controls.
A meta-analysis of brain imaging studies indicated that in general, the size of the amygdala appears to increase from childhood to adulthood in bipolar patients, starting out smaller than that of similarly-aged normal volunteers, but becoming larger than that of adult normal volunteers as the patients age into adulthood.
Lithium treatment increases gray matter volume in a variety of cortical areas and in the hippocampus in multiple studies. In contrast, treatment with valproate for 6 weeks appears to decrease hippocampal volume.
While the 4 major childhood-onset psychiatric illnesses we discussed this week (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.
This week we’ll be summarizing the research on long-term outcomes for four childhood-onset illnesses: bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety disorder. The information comes from a symposium at the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).
Course of Childhood Onset Bipolar Disorder
At the AACAP meeting, researcher Boris Birmaher discussed the considerable differences in presentations of bipolar disorder in childhood versus in adolescence. In childhood there appeared to be a more sub-syndromal symptoms or diagnoses of bipolar not otherwise specified (BP-NOS). There were more mixed symptoms, more hallucinations, worse course of illness, more comorbidities with ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder, and more separation anxiety disorder. In contrast, in adolescence there were more diagnoses of bipolar I and bipolar II, major depression, mania with elation and grandiosity, substance abuse, and conduct disorder.
Birmaher reported that while most children with early-onset mania recovered within two years, roughly 80% experienced recurrences over the next two to five years. Over a follow-up period of four years, 30% remained euthymic, 40% had continuing substantial symptoms, and 20% remained seriously ill. Birmaher’s data indicate that those with childhood-onset bipolar illness remained symptomatic during 60% of the follow-up period.
Predictors of a more difficult outcome included an early onset, a BP-NOS presentation, longer duration of illness, any comorbid illness, lower socioeconomic status, and a family history of bipolar disorder in first-degree relatives. Birmaher reported that these data in childhood-onset mania were consistent with earlier research by Judd and colleagues in a longitudinal follow-up study of adult patients with bipolar disorder. However, there were three major differences. The proportion of time well was lower in children (41.1%) than in adults (52.7%). Time in mixed episodes or rapid cycling was higher in childhood-onset bipolar disorder (28.9%) than in adults (5.9%). Rapid changes in polarity were also more common in children (15.7% ) than in adults (3.5%). Read more