Among the hundreds of posters, workshops, clinical perspectives, and symposia presented over five days at the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), there were almost no posters or presentations on new approaches to treatment (either with drugs or therapy) for children with bipolar disorder.
As we have repeatedly emphasized in the BNN and in research publications, this deficiency has adverse consequences for the many hundreds of thousands of children and adolescents in the US with unequivocal diagnoses of bipolar disorder. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death in adolescents 13 to 17 years of age in the US. Most of these young people have a mood disorder. Bipolar disorder carries with it not only a substantial risk of suicide, but also the potential for a lifetime of dysfunction, disability, and medical comorbidity if it is inadequately treated.
Please advocate for more treatment research for childhood onset bipolar disorder. A whole generation of children, their parents, and their physicians desperately need more treatment information.
At a symposium on early-onset depression at the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Betsy Kennard described a course of cognitive behavioral therapy tailored to eliminating residual symptoms in children with unipolar depression who had no family history of a parent with bipolar disorder. In the same study Graham Emslie discussed, the investigators considered cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of childhood- and adolescent-onset depression.
The therapy was aimed at achieving health and wellbeing and focusing on positive attributes and strengths in the child, and it was designed to be a shorter than usual course (i.e. four weekly sessions, then four every other week, and one at three months). This regimen typically also included three to five family sessions. Other key components of the therapy included anticipating and dealing with stressors, setting goals, and practicing all the skills learned.
On a visual timeline, children identified and wrote down past stressors, how they felt when depressed, their automatic cognitions, ways they would know when they were feeling down again (i.e. feeling isolated, angry at parents, etc.), their strengths and skills, what obstacles to feeling better existed and how to circumvent them, and their long-term goals.
The therapy was based on the research of Martin Seligman and Giovanni A. Fava, plus Rye’s Six S’s (soothing, self-healing, social, success, spiritual, and self-acceptance). The children participated in practice and skill-building in each domain. Sleep hygiene and exercise were emphasized. The idea of “making it stick” was made concrete with phrases on sticky notes taken home and put up on a mirror. Postcards were even sent between sessions as reminders and for encouragement.
Editor’s Note: Most depressed kids don’t get completely well (only about 20% after an acute course of medication). Something must be added. This kind of specialized cognitive behavior therapy works and keeps patients from relapsing. This study included only those children with unipolar depression whose parents did not have bipolar disorder. However, Emslie noted that depressed children of a bipolar parent also had an exceedingly low rate of switching into mania (2 to 4%) in his experience, so fluoxetine followed by cognitive behavioral therapy might be considered for treating unipolar depressed children of a bipolar parent.
Once children have developed bipolar disorder, evidenced by hypomania or mania followed by depression, antidepressants are to be avoided in favor of mood stabilizers and atypical antipsychotics, since there is a higher switch rate in these youth when they are prescribed antidepressant monotherapy.
Since children with bipolar disorder are at such high risk for continued symptoms and relapses, the strategy of adding cognitive behavioral therapy to their successful drug treatment would appear appropriate for them as well as those with unipolar depression, especially since there is a large positive literature on the efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoeducation, and Family Focused Therapy (FFT) in children and adults with bipolar depression. As noted previously, FFT is very effective for children at high risk because of a parent with bipolar disorder and who are already symptomatic with anxiety, depression or BP-NOS.
Moral of the story: getting kids with unipolar or bipolar depression well and keeping them well is a difficult endeavor that requires specialized, combined medication and therapy approaches and follow-up education and therapy. This is for sure. The hope would also be that good early and long-term intervention would yield a more benign course of recurrent unipolar or bipolar disorder than would treatment as usual (which all too often consists of medication only).
At a symposium on early-onset depression at the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Graham Emslie of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center discussed the role of cognitive behavioral therapy in the long-term treatment of child-and adolescent-onset unipolar depression.
In Emslie’s research, the combination of the antidepressant fluoxetine and cognitive behavioral therapy reduced depressive relapses in children. Using the two treatments together did not speed onset of antidepressant response compared to fluoxetine alone, but once children responded to the medication, the addition of cognitive behavioral therapy reduced relapses over the next year compared to fluoxetine alone (even though the cognitive behavioral therapy ended after the first six months).
Emslie likened the use of cognitive behavioral therapy to the course of rehabilitation that often follows a major surgery and is meant to sustain or enhance the good effects of surgery. Getting patients to full remission (well and with no residual symptoms) was the key to staying well.
Severe malnutrition in the first year of life even when corrected for the rest of a person’s life leaves a legacy of permanent cognitive deficits, marked deficits in attention, and increases in depression, conduct disorders, and medical disorders compared to carefully matched controls. Jamina Galler, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, gave a plenary talk at the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry on the long-term effects of even short-term childhood malnutrition, including marasmus (calorie deficiency) and kwashiorkor (protein deficiency).
Galler’s studies followed three generations of people born in Barbados and observed the consequences of prior malnutrition, which was completely eliminated in Barbados by 1980. The consequences of malnutrition in the first year of life not only affected the first (G1) generation, but subsequently their offspring in the G2 generation who also suffered an excess of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, low IQ, and low annual income into adulthood. That is, the early malnutrition had transgenerational effects.
Malnutrition is a huge problem worldwide and is especially bad in sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of Asia. Globally, malnutrition accounts for 50% of the deaths of children under age five. However, even in the US hunger is a problem for one in four children, or about 16 million individuals, and the long-term consequences of hunger remain to be further studied.
Studies in animals indicate that early malnutrition has epigenetic effects that can be passed on to four future generations before they are reversed. Epigenetic effects refer to environmental factors that cannot change the sequence of DNA, but change how easily it is transcribed by adding or taking away acetyl and methyl groups on DNA and histones, the structures around which DNA is wound. Malnutrition (defined as 6–8% casein, a type of protein, in the diet instead of the normal 25%) in rodents affects cognitive abilities and blood pressure and can lead to diabetes, obesity, and other metabolic abnormalities. The next generation is also affected because a previously malnourished mother huddles too much with her offspring, and they become obese as a result of these poor parenting skills. The second generation also exhibits epigenetic changes in the prefrontal cortex (such as too few glucocorticoid receptors due to methylation of the glucocorticoid promoter) and fewer neurons in the hippocampus.
Editor’s Note: Other data indicate similar long-lasting epigenetic and transgenerational effects of other types of childhood adversity, such as verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. These findings in humans are also paralleled by findings in animals, and give strong credence to the idea that the environment can have long-lasting effects on neurobiology and behavior via epigenetic effects that can be superimposed on whatever genetic effects are inherited.
Data from this editor (Robert Post) and colleagues on verbal abuse in childhood is striking; this supposedly less severe form of abuse is still associated with a more difficult course of bipolar disorder and an increase in medical comorbidities. Thus, the experience of early abuse, even just verbal abuse, appears to have long-lasting consequences for psychiatric and medical health into adulthood.
Several studies in adults and children suggest that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may have antidepressant effects. At the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in October, Melissa DelBello, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, reported on a new study of omega-3 fatty acids in depressed children who had a parent with bipolar disorder. The children taking omega-3 fatty acids were more likely to improve than those taking a placebo, but the findings were only of marginal significance.
Cold-water fish are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, and DelBello said salmon is by far the best in this regard. People who live in countries where fish is consumed in greater quantities are less likely to suffer from depression. Other sources of omega-3 fatty acids include shellfish, plant and nut oils, English walnuts, flaxseed, algae oils, and fortified foods.
The omega-3 fatty acids from fish are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), while the omega-3 fatty acids from plants are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which breaks down into EPA and DHA. All of these are anti-inflammatory, though one must consume much greater quantities of ALA to match the benefits of EPA and DHA. In contrast, omega-6 fatty acids, which are much more common in the typical American diet, are pro-inflammatory.
In DelBello’s study of 56 depressed children of a parent with bipolar disorder, the participants were randomized to either 1.8 g of omega-3 fatty acids (1.2 g of EPA and 0.6 g of DHA) or placebo (olive oil). Those who received the omega-3 fatty acids had a 55.6% rate of remission versus 34.5% for those who received placebo, but while the odds ratio of 2.4 favored the omega-3 fatty acids, the difference in remission rates was not statistically significant, likely because of the small size of the study. However, improvement on the Children’s Depression Rating Scale was significantly different across the two groups, with children taking omega-3s improving more. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to have an anticoagulant effect (preventing the clotting of blood), and four children in the study did have prolonged clotting times (but no clinical problems with bleeding).
Editor’s Note: Given the existing literature on omega-3 fatty acids and the trend in this study, omega-3s are worthy of consideration for the treatment and potentially for the prevention of depression in children. This later possibility is further suggested by findings from Australia that, when compared to placebo, omega-3 fatty acids significantly reduced the rate of conversion from prodromal (preliminary) psychotic symptoms to a full-blown diagnosis of schizophrenia.
In a 2013 study of children by Luby et al. in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, poverty in early childhood was associated with smaller white and gray matter in the cortex and with smaller volume of the amygdala and hippocampus when the children reached school age. The effects of poverty on hippocampal volume were mediated by whether the children experienced stressful life events and whether a caregiver was supportive or hostile.
The children were recruited from primary care and day care settings between the ages of three and six, and were studied for five to ten years. They were initially assessed annually for three to six years and information on psychosocial, behavioral, and developmental dimensions were collected. Then the children took part in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan and continued annual assessments that included information such as whether the children experienced stressful life events.
Previous research has shown that poverty affects children’s psychosocial development and economic success in adulthood. This research shows that poverty also affects brain development. The findings suggest important targets for intervention that could help prevent these developmental deficits.
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.
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.
Depression in a parent is one of the factors that best predicts whether a young person will develop depression. Since depression symptoms can vary greatly from person to person and some symptoms are known to be more heritable than others, new research is investigating whether a parent’s profile of symptoms affects their child’s likelihood of developing the illness. A 2013 study by Mars et al. in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry suggests that loss of appetite or weight in a parent with depression is the symptom that most strongly predicts new onset of depression and depressive symptoms in their offspring.
The study observed 337 parent-child pairs. The parents (mostly mothers), who had a history of recurrent unipolar depression, ranged in age from 25–55 years, and their children ranged from 9–17 years. The study lasted four years, during which the families participated in three assessments. Parents’ symptoms were recorded and children were also assessed for symptoms or new development of depression. Thirty percent of the offspring whose parents reported weight loss or low appetite were found to have new onset of depression at followup, compared to nine percent of the offspring whose parents did not have these symptoms.
There are nine symptoms used to diagnose depression in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders: low mood, loss of interest (anhedonia), loss of energy, change in appetite or weight, change in sleep, low self-esteem or guilt, suicidality, psychomotor slowing (retardation), and loss of concentration or indecisiveness. Of these, parental loss of appetite or weight was the only symptom that predicted depression in a child. Interestingly, the severity of parental depression or the presence of other health problems in the parent did not account for the emergence of illness in the children.
- 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