At the 2014 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, researcher B.N. Kim discussed symptoms that could distinguish between bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in childhood. Both disorders are characterized by decreased attention, concentration, and frustration tolerance, and increased activity, impulsiveness, and irritability.
Kim shared several differential symptoms that are more indicative of a bipolar diagnosis and that are inconsistent with a simple ADHD diagnosis (and this editor Robert Post has added several more). Signs and symptoms that suggest bipolar disorder and not ADHD include: decreased need for sleep, brief and extended periods of euphoria, hypersexuality, delusions, hallucinations, suicidal or homicidal impulses and/or actions, extreme aggression, and multiple areas of extreme behavioral dyscontrol. ADHD, on the other hand, is characterized by more difficulty focusing attention, and by less extreme symptoms in general.
Danish researcher Lars Kessing recently performed the first randomized controlled study of the efficacy of early intervention in bipolar disorder.
Patients who had been hospitalized for a first episode of mania were randomly assigned to two years of treatment in a specialized clinic versus two years with treatment as usual in the community (the control condition). The researchers predicted that then specialized clinic would decrease subsequent hospitalizations, and increase adherence to medication and patient satisfaction compared to treatment as usual over the subsequent six years.
Treatment at the special clinic began with a phase of post-hospitalization settling in, followed by psychoeducation (15 weeks of 1 session/week). Emphasis was placed on the recognition of breakthrough symptoms—early warning signals of an impending mood episode.
All three outcomes were better in the group who were treated at the specialized clinic than in control group who received treatment as usual. Hospitalizations were reduced 40%, medication compliance was enhanced, and patients were more satisfied. Patients younger than age 36 showed greater improvement and greater differences from the control group than were seen among older patients.
One striking observation was that the difference observed after patients had spent two years in the specialized clinic compared to the control group persisted and grew over the following four years, even though these patients left the specialized clinic after the first two years.
The specialized clinic was not only successful, but was also cost-effective. Clinic patient care led to a savings of €3,194 per patient. The costs for clinic patients were 11% of those for control patients.
Editor’s Note: We already know that treatment delay is related to poor outcome. (See article by this editor Robert Post et al. in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2010.) This study is groundbreaking in demonstrating that the quality of care in a specialized clinic has enormous personal, societal, and financial benefits, and can render the course of illness more benign over a sustained period of at least 6 years.
This means that a revolution in the care and treatment of patients with bipolar disorder is needed throughout the world, but especially in the US, where the typical treatment paradigm is as bad or worse than the treatment as usual condition in Kessing’s Danish study. When patients are discharged from the hospital, they are immediately at increased risk for relapses and, most alarmingly, at 200-fold increased risk of suicide. This post-hospitalization gap in treatment between episodes needs to be better managed. Transitional care is rarely handled well, psychoeducation is rarely given for a sufficient duration, therapy is often unavailable, and medication non-compliance is high. These factors lead to increased illness, re-hospitalizations, and skyrocketing personal and societal costs. Moreover, only 20% of bipolar patients identified in epidemiological studies in the US are in any kind of treatment.
Treatment guidelines must be changed to better address these issues. A first episode of mania should trigger a cascade of sequential treatments: Read more
The Pittsburgh Bipolar Offspring study, led by Boris Birmaher of the University of Pittsburgh, investigated risk of illness in the offspring of parents with bipolar disorder. The study included 233 parents with bipolar disorder and 143 controls. In addition to bipolar disorder, parents in the study had many other disorders, including anxiety (70%), panic (40%), a disruptive behavior disorder (35%), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD (25%), and substance use disorder (35%).
The offspring averaged age 12 at entry in the study. Offspring of parents with bipolar disorder had more illness than those of control parents, including bipolar spectrum disorders (10.6% versus 0.8%), depression (10.6% versus 3.6%), anxiety disorder (25.8% versus 10.8%), oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder (19.1% versus 8.0%), and ADHD (24.5% versus 6.7%). Of these differences, only bipolar spectrum disorders and anxiety were statistically significant after correcting for differences in the parents’ other diagnoses.
Two factors predicted bipolar spectrum disorders in the offspring: younger age of a parent at birth of child and bipolar disorder in both parents. Older children and those with diagnoses of anxiety or oppositional defiant disorder were more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
On long-term follow-up that continued on average until the offspring reached age 20, 23% of those participants who had a parent with bipolar disorder developed any type of bipolar disorder, versus only 1.2% of the children of controls. Of these 23%, about two-thirds had a depressive episode prior to the onset of their bipolar disorder.
Of the offspring of parents with bipolar disorder who developed a bipolar spectrum illness, 12.3% developed bipolar I or II disorders, while 10.7% were diagnosed with bipolar not otherwise specified (NOS). Of those with bipolar NOS, which some consider to be sub-threshold bipolar disorder, about 45% converted to a bipolar I or II diagnosis after several years of prospective follow-up. These data, along with the finding that children with bipolar NOS are highly impaired and take more than a year on average to remit, stress the importance of vigorously treating this subtype, even if it does not meet the full threshold for bipolar I or bipolar II.
Birmaher indicated that although about 50% of the offspring of a bipolar patient had no diagnosis, the high incidence of multiple psychiatric difficulties developing over childhood and adolescence spoke to the importance of attempts at early intervention and prevention. Studies of effective treatment and prevention strategies are desperately needed. So far only family focused therapy (FFT), an intervention developed by researcher David Miklowitz, has shown significant benefits over standard treatment in children with a positive family history of bipolar disorder who already have a diagnosis of anxiety, depression, or bipolar not otherwise specified.
Many patients with bipolar disorder experience cognitive deficits that impede their recovery and that persist during times of wellness. In a double-blind placebo-controlled study by K. N. Roy Chengappa et al. published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2013, the herb Withania somnifera (WSE, commonly called ashwagandha and sold under the name Sensoril) was significantly better than placebo at improving patients’ performance on three different cognitive tasks.
In the eight-week study, 53 patients took either 500 mg of WSE or placebo in addition to their regular medications.
The herb, which has traditionally been used in Ayurvedic medicine in India as an aid to resisting stress and disease, improved performance on digit span backwards (a test of short-term memory in which the subject must repeat a sequence of numbers backwards), Flanker neutral (a test of response time in which a subject must repress their instinct to give an incorrect response), and the Penn Emotional Acuity Test (which requires subjects to correctly identify facial emotions depicted in photographs).
Mood and anxiety levels were not different for the group taking WSE and the group taking placebo.
The researchers hope to continue their investigation of WSE with larger and longer-term studies that will explore the effects of different doses of WSE.
Cultures where more omega-3 fatty acids (which have anti-inflammatory effects) and fewer omega-6 fatty acids (which have pro-inflammatory effects) are consumed have a lower incidence of depression and bipolar disorder. However, the exact role that each kind of fatty acid plays in the brain and whether dietary changes can improve mood disorders is still being investigated. A 2012 study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research examined the complete lipid profiles of participants with bipolar disorder to collect data on these questions.
The most significant results to come from the study were that levels of the long-chain omega-6 fatty acid dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA) were positively correlated with neuroticism, depression severity, and decreased functioning. Depression severity was negatively correlated with the omega-6 fatty acid linolenic acid (LA) and the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and positively correlated with fatty acid desaturase 2 (FADS2), an enzyme that converts LA to the omega-6 fatty acid gamma-linolenic acid GLA.
The data suggest that particular omega-6 fatty acids and the enzymes that lead to their production may be used as biomarkers that can indicate depression.
Editor’s Note: Levels of specific omega-6 fatty acids and their related enzymes were found to correlate with depression severity in this study. Since omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory, diets higher in omega-6 fatty acids are associated with more cardiovascular problems, and a 2012 article by Chang et al. in the Journal of Psychiatric Research reported that completed suicides in bipolar patients with cardiovascular disorders were significantly higher than in those with bipolar disorder without cardiovascular illness, it seems a healthy diet can have multiple benefits, including potentially reducing depressive burden, cardiovascular risk, and suicide risk.
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.
Most children recover from an episode of bipolar disorder after a considerable period of time, but the majority eventually relapse. At the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), Boris Birmaher of the University of Pittsburgh presented new data on the long-term prospective course of bipolar disorder in 255 children with bipolar I, 30 children with bipolar II, and 153 children with bipolar NOS (not otherwise specified), who together had an average age of onset of 9.3 +/- 3.9 years. The children participated in the study for an average of 8 years. Most of the children (81.5%) recovered from their episode, but only after an average of 2.5 years of follow up treatment. Yet 62.5% of those who recovered experience a recurrence after an average of 1.5 years.
Editor’s Note: It takes a long, long time to achieve recovery, and longer for bipolar NOS (more than 2 years on average) than for either Bipolar I or II (about 1.8 years). However, the high rate of relapse within 1 to 2 years is equally disturbing. These data are similar to those in many other prospective follow up studies of children, and suggest that it is important for parents to be aware that this illness is difficult to treat, and good results within weeks are not likely to be the norm. At the same time, 43% of the children with a bipolar diagnosis eventually achieved euthymia (wellness) in the longer term, so there is cause for some optimism.
Four Trajectories in Children with Bipolar Illness
Birmaher described four different long-term,trajectories observed over an average of 8 years of follow up with 438 children with bipolar disorder.
- Predominately euthymic (24%)
- Ill early then much improved (19%)
- Mild to moderately ill—euthymic only 47% of the time (34.6%)
- Predominantly ill—euthymic 11.5% of the time (20.3%)
The predominantly well group (1) was associated in a univariate analysis with a later onset of illness, higher socio-economic status, less conflict, fewer stressors, less sexual abuse, fewer anxiety and ADHD comorbidities, and less medication (including stimulant use). In a multivariate analysis, this group was independently associated with less severe depression/mania, less suicidal ideation, less substance use, less sexual abuse, and less family history of mania and substance abuse.
This group had the best functioning, almost to 80 on the Children’s Global Assessment Scale (C-GAS). In comparison, despite considerable time euthymic for groups 2 and 3, these children still had considerable functional impairment, in the realm of 65 on the C-GAS scale. Even in Group 1, about half of the children had low C-GAS scores.
Birmaher suggested the importance of trying to find ways to delay the onset of the illness (to graduate more children into the good prognosis group) and allowing them time to develop socially and educationally and graduate from high school. Potential preventive strategies could include omega-3 fatty acids, more time spent exercising, good sleep hygiene, family focused therapy (FFT), dialectic behavior therapy, treating subsyndromal depression, and even treating parents with mood disorders to complete remission (which has been shown to improve behavioral health in offspring).
Editor’s Note: As this editor Post, Chang, and Frye wrote in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2013, beginning to study the effectiveness of these kinds of early primary and secondary prevention strategies in children who can now be readily identified clinically as at risk for a mood disorder, should be given the highest priority.
Children who have at least one parent with a bipolar or unipolar disorder, some further environmental risk factors (such as adversity in early childhood), and early symptoms of depression, anxiety, or prodromal bipolar disorder are at very high risk for bipolar disorder, and there is an urgent need for randomized studies (even open ones) of safe potential preventive strategies for these children.
Omega-3 fatty acids in particular have a strong record of safety, compelling rationale for use in bipolar disorder, and have already been shown to have significant preventive effects in decreasing the transition from early prodromal psychosis to full-blown schizophrenia.
People with bipolar disorder often show signs of inflammation. These could eventually help clarify diagnosis, illness activity, and treatment response, and predict illness progression. Previous studies have shown increases in c-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin-6 (IL-6), and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) in adults with mood disorder. These high levels tend to improve with medications, are related to illness severity, and are also related to manic and mixed states.
At the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), Ben Goldstein reported on a study that examined levels of TNF alpha, IL-6, and high sensitivity CRP (hsCRP) in 123 adolescents with an average age of 20.4 years, who had been ill for an average of 12.7 years.
CRP levels in adolescents with bipolar illness were equivalent to those with rheumatoid arthritis, and much higher than healthy controls. In children with bipolar disorder, higher levels of CRP were related to more time symptomatic. High hsCRP was related to lower socio-economic status and to substance abuse disorders.
Increases in IL-6 were linked to a longer time to achieve remission and more weeks depressed. High IL-6 was related to duration of illness, positive family history of substance use, and family conflict.
High TNF alpha was related to low socioeconomic status (SES), self-injury, suicidal ideation, and positive life events.
Goldstein said studies of these markers could eventually lead to therapeutic advances, but the process would be long and would require several steps: proof of concept studies, prospective validation studies in independent samples, and demonstration of clinical gains over standard predictive markers, culminating in enhanced patient care and outcome through better, faster prediction of response.
Editor’s Note: Ideally clinicians could jump ahead by immediately attempting to determine whether adding a medication with direct anti-inflammatory effects could enhance therapeutic effects in children with elevated inflammatory markers. Treating inflammation could also theoretically help prevent cognitive deterioration and decrease the considerable risk for cardiovascular dysfunction in patients with bipolar disorder.
Many children with bipolar disorder also present with other comorbid Axis I psychiatric illnesses. Now it seems that the worsening of these comorbidities, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or an anxiety disorder, can signal a more difficult course of bipolar illness itself. At a symposium on the course of bipolar disorder in children at the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), Shirley Yen from Brown University discussed findings on comorbidities of childhood onset bipolar disorder from COBY, the Collaborative Child Bipolar Network. Upon study entry, 60% of children with bipolar disorder also had ADHD, 40% had oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), 39% had an anxiety disorder, 12.5% had both oppositional defiant disorder and a conduct disorder, and 9% had a substance abuse disorder.
The prevalence of most of these comorbid illnesses increased over time (e.g. anxiety disorder rates increased from 39% to 62%). The illnesses were also related to the time it took participants to achieve recovery (eight consecutive weeks well), and the time until a recurrence of a depressive or manic episode.
Increases in anxiety were linked to longer time to achieve recovery and a shorter time to a recurrence. Increases in ADHD were linked to a more rapid onset of a depressive recurrence. Increases in oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder had no relationship with either remission or recurrence. Increases in substance abuse disorders were linked to a longer time to recover from a manic episode. Thus, worsening of the comorbid conditions had definite consequences for both recovery and recurrence.
Research on early-onset bipolar disorder has often hinged on identifying the key characteristics of the disorder. At a symposium on the course of bipolar disorder in children at the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), Jeff Hunt of Brown University discussed findings from COBY, the Collaborative Child Bipolar Network. He described the course of illness in 446 children with bipolar disorder, including 10% who had irritability at baseline, 15% who had elated mood at baseline, and a majority (75%) who had both irritability and elation at baseline.
Most factors such as positive family history of bipolar illness and comorbidities including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) did not differ across the three groups. The three subtypes (irritable, elated, or mixed) did not remain stable, and most of the children eventually converted to the combined irritable and elated subtype. These data contrast with those of Ellen Liebenluft et al., who found that those with severe mood dysregulation or chronic irritability (but not other key characteristics of bipolar disorder) did not go on go on to receive a bipolar diagnosis and tended not to have a family history of bipolar disorder.