Longer Periods of Untreated Depression Linked to More Brain Inflammation

June 27, 2018 · Posted in Course of Illness, Risk Factors · Comment 

depressed womanA 2018 study by researchers Elaine Setiawan, Sophia Attwells and colleagues reports that inflammation seems to increase with duration of untreated unipolar depression. This implies that depression may be a progressive illness, and later stage depression may require different treatments than early stage depression, such as those that directly target inflammation.

The study published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry used positron emission tomography (PET scan) to examines levels of translocator protein in the brain. Higher levels of translocator protein indicate activation of microglia, the brain’s immune cells, which can respond to trauma or injury.

The study included 80 participants between the ages of 18 and 75. Ten had a history of more than 10 years of depression, ten had experienced fewer than 10 years of depression, and 30 comprised a healthy comparison group.

The best predictors of high levels of translocator protein were duration of untreated major depressive disorder, total illness duration, and duration of antidepressant exposure. These three factors explained about half of the variation in translocator protein levels. Those participants whose depression went untreated for 10 years or longer had inflammation levels 29–33% higher than those whose depression was untreated for 9 years or less.

Participants who had received antidepressant treatment appeared to avoid an average yearly increase in the extent of their microglial activation.

The study took place at Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Editor’s Note: Since inflammation is a predictor of poorer response to antidepressants, these data add a further neurochemical rationale to the already strong clinical rationale for earlier and more sustained antidepressant treatment and prevention. Virtually all treatment guidelines suggest that after two or three prior unipolar depressions, patients should receive long-term (lifelong) antidepressant treatment.

There is now a large body of data, including a 2012 article by this editor Robert M. Post and colleagues in the Journal of Psychiatric Research that too many episodes can hurt the brain, and the current study adds to this perspective. Avoiding preventive treatment for too long may actually foster the development of more episodes and more treatment resistance. A good mantra is “prevent episodes, protect the brain.”

Consensus is now also building that comprehensive long-term treatment is indicated after a first manic episode. A 2013 article by Lars Kessing and colleagues in the British Journal of Psychiatry suggested that high quality initial treatment can improve the long-term course of illness. Moreover, a 2016 article by Jan-Marie Kozicky and colleagues and a 2017 article by Christine Demmo and colleagues, both in the journal Bipolar Disorders, suggest that after a first mania, cognition recovers over the next year only if no further episodes occur in that time.

Three-Minute ‘Theta Burst’ Treatment as Effective as 37-Minute RTMS

May 30, 2018 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 

rTMS treatment

A variation on repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) called intermittent theta burst stimulation (iTBS) may be able to deliver the same benefits in a tenth of the time. RTMS is a non-invasive treatment in which a magnetic coil placed near the skull transmits electrical signals to the brain. It is effective in depression and has been shown to improve aspects of schizophrenia, autism, and addictions as well.

A typical rTMS session lasts for 37.5 minutes and consists of high frequency (10 Hz) stimulation. Access to the treatment remains somewhat limited, so the newer form of iTBS treatment may help more people access treatment by allowing clinicians to treat more patients in a day.

The 2018 study, published by Daniel Blumberger and colleagues in the journal The Lancet, compared iTBS to standard rTMS and evaluated the effectiveness, safety, and tolerability of the new treatment compared to the old. 414 patients aged 18–65 with major depression that had persisted despite treatment with several antidepressant options were randomized to receive either iTBS or rTMS delivered to their left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. They received the given treatment five days/week for four to six weeks.

Patients who received iTBS showed a nearly identical level of improvement in depression to those who received rTMS. Self-reports of pain intensity were worse among those who received iTBS, but the dropout rate was not higher for that group. Headaches were the most common side effect reported, and rates were similar across both groups. The authors judged iTBS to be a comparable, non-inferior alternative to rTMS for people with major depression.

Among participants who received iTBS, depression improved significantly, with 32 percent reporting a remission of depression symptoms. Those who received standard rTMS had a remission rate of 27 percent.

Treatment Approaches to Childhood-Onset Treatment-Resistant Bipolar Disorder

May 14, 2018 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 

Dear readers interested in the treatment of young children with bipolar disorder and multiple other symptoms: In 2017, BNN Editor Robert M. Post and colleagues published an open access paper in the journal The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders titled “A Multi-Symptomatic Child: How to Track and Sequence Treatment.” The article describes a single case of childhood-onset bipolar disorder shared with us via our Child Network, a research program in which parents can create weekly ratings of their children’s mood and behavioral symptoms, and share the long-term results in graphic form with their children’s physicians.

Here we summarize potential treatment approaches for this child, which may be of use to other children with similar symptoms.

We present a 9-year-old girl whose symptoms of depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional behavior, and mania were rated on a weekly basis in the Child Network under a protocol approved by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Institutional Review Board. The girl, whose symptoms were rated consistently for almost one year, remained inadequately responsive to lithium, risperidone, and several other medications. We describe a range of other treatment options that could be introduced. The references for the suggestions are available in the full manuscript cited above, and many quotes from the original article are reprinted here directly.

As illustrated in the figure below, after many weeks of severe mania, depression, and ADHD, the child initially appeared to improve with the introduction of 4,800 micrograms per day of lithium orotate (a more potent alternative to lithium carbonate that is marketed as a dietary supplement), in combination with 1 mg per day of guanfacine, and 1 mg per day of melatonin.

mood chart

Despite continued treatment with lithium orotate (up to 9,800 micrograms twice per day), the patient’s oppositional behavior worsened during the period from November 2015 to March 2016, and moderate depression re-emerged in April 2016. Anxiety was also generally less severe from December 2015 to July 2016, and weekly ratings of overall illness remained in the moderate severity range (not illustrated).

In June 2016, the patient began taking risperidone (maximum dose 1.7 mg/day) instead of lithium, and her mania improved from moderate to mild. There was little change in her moderate but fluctuating depression ratings, but her ADHD symptoms got worse.
The patient had been previously diagnosed with bipolar II disorder and anxiety disorders including school phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Given the six weeks of moderate to severe mania that the patient experienced in October and November 2015, she would meet criteria for a diagnosis of bipolar I disorder.

Targeting Symptoms to Achieve Remission

General treatment goals would include: mood stabilization prior to use of ADHD medications, a drug regimen that maximizes tolerability and safety, targeting of residual symptoms with appropriate medications supplemented with nutraceuticals, recognition that complex combination treatment may be necessary, and combined use of medications, family education, and therapy.

Mood Stabilizers and Atypical Antipsychotics to Maximize Antimanic Effects

None of the treatment options in this section are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for use in children under 10 years of age, so all of the suggestions are “off label.” Further, they may differ from what other investigators in this area of medicine would suggest, especially since evidence-based medicine’s traditional gold standard of randomized placebo-controlled clinical trials is impossible to apply here, given the lack of research in children with bipolar disorder.

As we share in the original article, reintroducing lithium alongside risperidone could be effective, as “combinations were more effective than monotherapy in a study [by] Geller et al. (2012), especially when they involved an atypical antipsychotic such as risperidone. This might include the switch from lithium orotate to lithium carbonate,” the typical treatment for bipolar disorder, on which more research has been done. “Combinations of lithium and valproate were also more effective than either [drug alone]…in the studies of Findling et al. (2006),” and many patients needed stimulants in addition.

“Most children also needed combinations of mood stabilizers (lithium, carbamazepine, valproate) in the study [by] Kowatch et al. (2000).” In a 2017 study by Berk et al. of patients hospitalized for a first mania, randomization to lithium for one year was more effective than quetiapine on almost all outcome measures.

Targeting ADHD

“[The increased] severity of [the child’s] ADHD despite improving mania speaks to the…utility of adding a stimulant to the regimen that already includes…guanfacine,” which is a common non-stimulant treatment for ADHD. “This would be supported by the data of Scheffer et al. (2005) that stimulant augmentation for residual ADHD symptoms does not [worsen] mania, and that the combination of a stimulant and guanfacine may have more favorable effects than stimulants alone.”

However, the consensus in the field is that mood stabilization should be achieved first, before low to moderate (but not high) doses of stimulants are added. “Thus, in the face of an inadequate response to the lithium-risperidone combination in this child, stimulants could be deferred until better mood stabilization was achieved.”

Other Approaches to Mood Stabilization and Anxiety Reduction

“The anticonvulsant mood stabilizers (carbamazepine, lamotrigine, and valproate) each have considerable mood stabilizing and anti-anxiety effects, at least in adults with bipolar disorder. With inadequate mood stabilization of this patient on lithium and risperidone, we would consider the further addition of lamotrigine.

Lamotrigine appears particularly effective in adults with bipolar disorder who have a personal history and a family history of anxiety (as opposed to mood disorders), and it has positive open data in adolescents with bipolar depression and in a controlled study of maintenance (in teenagers 13–17, but not in preteens 10–12) (Findling et al. 2015). With better mood stabilization, anxiety symptoms usually diminish…, and we would pursue these strategies [instead of using] antidepressants for depression and anxiety in young children with bipolar disorder.”

“Carbamazepine appears to be more effective in adults with bipolar who have [no] family history of mood disorders,” unlike lithium, which seems to work better in people who do have a family history of mood disorders.

“While the overall results of oxcarbazepine in childhood mania were negative, they did exceed placebo in the youngest patients (aged 7–12) as opposed to the older adolescents (13–18) (Wagner et al. 2006).

“There are long-acting preparations of both carbamazepine (Equetro) and oxcarbazepine (Oxtellar) that would allow for all nighttime dosing to help with sleep and reduce daytime side effects and sedation. Although data [on] anti-manic and antidepressant effects in adults are stronger for carbamazepine than oxcarbazepine,” there are good reasons to consider oxcarbazepine. First, there is the finding mentioned above that oxcarbazepine worked best in the youngest children. Second, there is a lower incidence of severe white count suppression on oxcarbazepine. Third, it has less of an effect on liver enzymes than carbamazepine. However, low blood sodium levels are more frequent on oxcarbazepine than carbamazepine.

Other Atypical Antipsychotics That May Improve Depression

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Playing Tackle Football Before Age 12 May Be Bad for the Brain

May 3, 2018 · Posted in Risk Factors · Comment 

a football on grass

A 2017 study found that men who began playing American tackle football before age 12 were more likely to have depression, apathy, problems with executive functioning, and behavioral issues in adulthood than their peers who began playing football after age 12. Duration of football play did not seem to matter—those men who stopped playing football after high school were just as likely to be affected in adulthood as those who went on to play football in college or professionally.

The study by Michael L. Alosco and colleagues was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry. It included 214 men (average age 51) who had played football in their youth, but not other contact sports. The men reported their own experiences with depression, apathy, cognitive function, and behavioral regulation. Those who began football before age 12 were twice as likely to report impairment in behavioral regulation, apathy, and executive function than those who began playing later. Those who started younger were also three times more likely to have clinical depression in adulthood than those who started older.

According to Alosco and colleagues, between ages 9 and 12, the brain reaches peak maturation of gray and white matter volume, and synapse and neurotransmitter density also increases. The repeated head injuries that can occur during youth football play during this time may disrupt neurodevelopment, with lasting negative effects.

One drawback to the study was that recruitment was not random—men who volunteered for the study might have done so due to a recognition of their own cognitive problems. However, the results suggest more study is needed, and caution is encouraged when making decisions about youth football participation. Some youth football leagues have begun placing greater limits on the type of contact allowed during play.

Children Who Are Bullied Have Poorer Mental Health

April 30, 2018 · Posted in Risk Factors · Comment 

girl being bullied

A 2017 study of twins between the ages of 11 and 16 found that being bullied around age 11 caused anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and impulsivity, inattention, and conduct problems, some of which lasted for years. Participants recorded their experiences with physical or verbal bullying, social manipulation, and property attacks (trying to break one’s belongings, for example).

The effects of bullying decreased over time. The bullied children were still significantly more anxious than their non-bullied twins two years later, but this difference faded by the five-year mark. However, paranoid thoughts and cognitive disorganization did persist for 5 years.
The twin study design helped researchers zone in on the causal effect bullying might have on the children’s mental health, rather than other factors the twins shared, such as genetics or family environment. The study included 11,108 twins born in England and Wales.

The research by Timothy Singham and colleagues was published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. Interestingly, the researchers found that prior mental health difficulties increased children’s likelihood of being bullied, such that being bullied could be considered a symptom of preexisting vulnerabilities. Singham and colleagues suggest that in addition to interventions to reduce bullying and address familial factors that might make children susceptible to bullying, children should also be taught resilience skills.

Clinical Vignettes from Dr. Elizabeth Stuller

April 11, 2018 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 

Dr. Elizabeth Stuller, a staff psychiatrist at the Amen clinics in Washington, DC and CEO of private practice Stuller Resettings in Baltimore, MD, provided this editor (Robert M. Post) with several interesting anecdotal observations based on her wide clinical experience with difficult-to-treat mood disordered patients.

  1. Stuller has used low-dose asenapine (Saphris), e.g. half a pill placed under the tongue, for depressed patients with alcohol use problems who have trouble getting to sleep. She has also used asenapine for rapid calming of agitated patients in her office.
  2. Stuller has also had success with the use of the atypical antipsychotic drug brexpiprazole (Rexulti) for patients with bipolar depression and low energy. She typically uses 0.5 mg/day for women and 1 mg/day for men. Stuller finds that there is little weight gain or akathisia with brexpiprazole.
  3. She has had success with the drug Nuedexta, which is a combination of dextromethorphan and quinidine and is approved for the treatment of sudden uncontrollable bouts of laughing or crying, known as pseudobulbar affect, which can occur as a result of neurological conditions or brain injuries. It is a combination of an NMDA antagonist and a sigma receptor agonist. Stuller starts with the 20mg dextromethorphan/10 mg quinidine dose once a day and increases to twice a day in week two. She finds it useful for behavioral effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI), anxiety resulting from the use of synthetic marijuana (sometimes called spice), and psychosis not otherwise specified. Stuller also finds that some patients appear to respond well to Nuedextra but not minocycline, or vice versa.

Editor’s Note: Note that these are preliminary clinical anecdotes conveyed in a personal communication, and have not been studied in clinical trials, thus should not be relied upon in the making of medical decisions. All decisions about treatment are the responsibility of a treating physician.

Management of Unipolar and Bipolar Depression During Pregnancy

March 5, 2018 · Posted in Current Treatments, Potential Treatments · Comment 

pregnancyAt the Maryland Psychiatric Research Society’s continuing medical education conference in November, Lauren Osbourne, Assistant Director of the Women’s Mood Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, gave a presentation on the management of mood and anxiety during pregnancy and lactation. She had a number of important ideas for physicians and patients to consider in their decision-making process.

According to Osbourne, 60%-70% of pregnant women with unipolar depression who discontinue their antidepressants relapse. Of those with bipolar disorder who discontinue their mood stabilizers, 85% relapse, while 37% of those who stay on their medications relapse.

Something to consider when deciding whether to continue medication while pregnant is that depression in pregnancy carries its own risks for the fetus. These include preterm delivery, low birth weight, poor muscle tone, hypoactivity, increased cortisol, poor reflexes, and increased incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other behavioral disorders.

The placenta makes an enzyme 11-BHSD2 that lowers the stress hormone cortisol in the baby. However, this enzyme is less active in depression, exposing the fetus to higher levels of cortisol.

Thus, the decision about whether to continue medications during pregnancy should consider the risks to the fetus of both the mother’s depression and the mother’s medications.

Most antidepressants are now considered safe during pregnancy. There have been reports of potential problems, but these data are often confounded by the fact that women with more severe depression are more likely to require antidepressants, along with other risk variables such as smoking or late delivery (after 42 weeks). When these are accounted for by using matched controls, the apparent risks of certain antidepressants are no longer significant. This includes no increased risk of persistent pulmonary hypertension, autism, or cardiac malformations.

There may be a possible increased risk of Neonatal Adaption Syndrome (NAS) in the first weeks of life in babies who were exposed to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants in the third trimester. This syndrome presumably results from antidepressant withdrawal, and can include respiratory distress, temperature changes, decreased feeding, jitteriness/irritability, floppiness or rigidity, hypoglycemia, and jaundice. There is not yet a robust literature on the syndrome, but Osbourne suggested that it disappears within 2 weeks of birth.

In her practice, Osbourne prefers to prescribe sertraline, which has the best safety data, along with fluoxetine. Sertraline is also OK for breastfeeding. There is less data on bupropion, but it also appears to be safe during pregnancy. Endocrine and enzyme changes in pregnancy typically cause a 40% to 50% decrease in concentrations of antidepressants, so doses of antidepressants typically must be increased in order to maintain their effectiveness.

Osbourne ranked mood stabilizers for bipolar disorder, from safest to most worrisome. Lamotrigine is safest. There is no evidence linking it to birth defects, but higher doses are required because of increased clearance during pregnancy. Lithium is next safest. There are cardiac risks for one in 1,200 patients, but these can be monitored. Carbamazepine is third safest. One percent of babies exposed to carbamazepine will develop spina bifida or craniofacial abnormalities. Valproate is least safe during pregnancy. Seven to ten percent of babies exposed to valproate will develop neural tube defects, other malformations, or developmental delay, with a mean decrease of 9 IQ points. The atypical antipsychotics all appear safe so far.

Alternatives and Adjuncts to Medications in Pregnancy

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Depression and Suicidal Thoughts Linked to Brain Inflammation

February 14, 2018 · Posted in Neurobiology · Comment 

depressed man

A 2017 article by Sophie E. Holmes and colleagues in the journal Biological Psychiatry reports that people with major unipolar depression, especially those with suicidal thoughts, have higher levels of the inflammatory marker translocator protein than do healthy individuals.

The participants with depression and suicidal thinking had high levels of translocator protein in the anterior cingulate cortex, which suggests that inflammation is affecting microglia.

Many studies have found links between different indicators of inflammation and mood disorders, leading researchers to speculate whether targeting the immune system could be an effective way to treat mood disorders. Patients with high levels of inflammation often fail to respond to typical treatments for depression.

Some previous research has found evidence of microglial activation in the brains of people who died from suicide.

The small study by Holmes and colleagues used positron-emission tomography, or PET scans, to observe evidence of translocator protein levels in the brain in 14 medication-free participants in a major depressive episode and 13 healthy volunteers. Those with depression, and particularly those with suicidal thoughts, showed more evidence of neuroinflammation.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Improve Executive Function in Youth with Mood Disorders

January 29, 2018 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 

omega-3 fatty acids

A 2017 study by Anthony T. Vesco and colleagues in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry suggests that in youth with depression or bipolar not otherwise specified (BP-NOS), omega-3 fatty acid supplements improve executive functioning and behavior regulation compared to placebo.

Ninety-five participants aged 7–14 years received two capsules daily of either omega-3 fatty acids (1.87g total per day, mostly consisting of EPA) or placebo for 12 weeks. Those who received omega-3s showed improvement in executive functioning (which can include planning and decision-making), behavioral regulation, and metacognition, as rated by their parents.

Editor’s Note: Since omega-3 fatty acids have no known side effects, there is little reason not to try them in youth with depression or bipolar disorder.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Can Improve PTSD

January 18, 2018 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 

A 2014 meta-analysis of clinical trials showed that the therapeutic technique known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The meta-analysis also established that longer durations of EMDR treatment correlated with better outcomes.

The meta-analysis by Ying-Ren Chen and colleagues in the journal PLOS One evaluated 26 randomized controlled trials of EMDR in people with PTSD. Chen and colleagues found that EMDR reduced PTSD symptoms, depression, anxiety, and subjective distress.

EMDR is a psychotherapeutic technique intended to reduce the distress that a patient feels about a traumatic memory. The patient is encouraged to recall the traumatic event while focusing on an external stimulus. Typically this would mean using their eyes to track the therapist’s hand moving back and forth from left to right. This process can help patients reprocess the trauma and alleviate the stress that they feel upon recalling the traumatic memory.

Chen and colleagues found that EMDR sessions that lasted longer than one hour were more effective than those that lasted less than an hour. Another finding that was that groups led by therapists who were experienced in PTSD group therapy were more effective than groups led by therapists without that experience.

Other more recent research has established that traumatic memories can be reprocessed or even extinguished by making use of the memory reconsolidation window. Five minutes to one hour after a patient engages in active emotional recall of a traumatic memory, a window of time opens in which that memory is subject to reinterpretation and revision.

An experienced therapist can create a safe environment for a patient to recall traumatic events and find alternative ways of interpreting the experience—for example, by focusing on their strength in surviving the experience. This process resembles EMDR in many ways, but without the eye movements.

In a 2017 article in the journal Psychiatry Research, BNN Editor-in-Chief Robert M. Post and colleague Robert Kegan discuss the possibility of using the reconsolidation window to reprocess stressors that led to a depressive episode.

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