Depression and Bipolar Disorder in Adolescence Linked to Early-Onset Cardiovascular Disease and Hardening of the Arteries
The link between mood disorders and cardiovascular illnesses has been clear for some time. Now there is evidence that this link begins early in life. In 2015, the American Heart Association issued a statement that adolescents with major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder are at increased risk for both accelerated atherosclerosis (narrowing and hardening of the arteries) and early-onset cardiovascular disease.
In the statement, the American Heart Association recommended that major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder be classified as “tier II” conditions (which also include HIV and chronic inflammatory disease) that confer a moderate risk of disease.
Until recently, it had been assumed that the increased risk of cardiovascular disease among people with depression or bipolar disorder was a result of behaviors linked to these illnesses, such as higher rates of smoking, obesity, or diabetes, which increases heart disease. Some psychiatric medication can also bring about risk factors for cardiovascular problems. It turns out that these types of factors could not fully explain the increased risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease among people who had depression or bipolar disorder in their teens.
It is not clear why depression and bipolar disorder make cardiovascular illness more likely, though it may be due to blood vessel damage resulting from inflammation or oxidative stress.
The American Heart Association recommends that pediatricians and cardiologists pay particular attention to this link by identifying and treating mental illness as early as possible and by making sure that their colleagues understand the role of mental illnesses in cardiovascular risk.
Vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) is an FDA-approved treatment for seizures and treatment-resistant depression. It typically requires an operation to insert a stimulator in a patient’s chest wall that delivers electrical impulses to their left vagus nerve via electrodes placed on the patient’s neck. New research by Bashar W. Badran and colleagues may have identified a less invasive and less expensive way to stimulate the vagal nerve—via electrodes placed on the ear.
The researchers tested different parameters for vagal nerve stimulation via the ear on 15 healthy volunteers and found that this type of VNS was feasible, tolerable, and reasonably safe. Among the different parameters tested, a stimulation pulse width of 500 microseconds at 25Hz had the greatest effect on heart rate, slowing it by about 4.25 beats per minute compared to a sham treatment.
Next Badran and colleagues plan to study the effects of this type of VNS on brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
A new study suggests that the nutritional supplement vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, can improve symptoms of depression when taken with an antidepressant. Edith Holsboer-Trachsler and colleagues presented the research from their randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study at a recent scientific meeting. In a 12-week study, about 50 adults (averaging 35 years of age) with major depression were prescribed a selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant. In addition, half received thiamine supplements while the other half were given placebos. Starting at six weeks, those receiving thiamine with their antidepressant showed more improvement in their depressive symptoms than those receiving the antidepressant alone.
Thiamine is an essential nutrient for humans. It is found in foods such as yeast, pork, cereal grains, and certain vegetables. Thiamine deficiency has been linked to irritability and symptoms of depression, while thiamine supplementation can improve mood and reduce feelings of stress. No side effects were reported in the study.
Holsboer-Trachsler and colleagues hope that thiamine supplementation may help patients adhere to their antidepressant regimens by decreasing the time it takes until their moods begin to lift.
Researchers believe there is a link between diabetes and depression. Some drugs used to treat type II diabetes and its associated inflammatory symptoms have been found to improve depression as well. These include metformin, rosiglitazone, and pioglitazone. A recent study by Natalie Rasgon and colleagues explored the effects of pioglitazone treatment on people with insulin resistance, insulin sensitivity and/or pre-diabetes and ongoing depression. The researchers hoped to find that adding pioglitazone to the patients’ regular antidepressant regimen might improve depression by reducing inflammation.
The study also touched on the role of telomere length in mental and metabolic disorders. Telomeres are repeated DNA sequences that sit at the end of chromosomes and protect them during cell replication. Telomeres get shorter with aging and with psychiatric illnesses. In the study, telomere length was used to predict whether patients’ depression would improve.
Rasgon and colleagues found that in those patients taking both pioglitazone and antidepressant treatments (compared to those who received a placebo in addition to their antidepressants), longer telomeres predicted better antidepressant response. This suggests that telomere length could be used as a biomarker—that is, measuring a patient’s telomere length could reveal whether that patient’s depression is likely to respond to an anti-inflammatory treatment such as pioglitazone. The research was presented at a 2015 scientific meeting.
Drug treatment for major depression can produce remission in 35–50% or patients. The others may need additional interventions, and some mind-body techniques have been successful. A recent randomized study by Anup Sharma and colleagues found that Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) decreased depression at one and two months when added to participants’ regular treatments. Participants who received the yoga treatment also showed reductions in inflammation in the blood, including lower levels of the inflammatory proteins TNF-alpha, IL-10, and CRP.
A recent study clarified how cognitive behavioral therapy improves symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The participants were 62 adult women. One group had depression, one had PTSD, and the third was made up of healthy volunteers. None were taking medication at the time of the study. The researchers, led by Yvette Shelive, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyze participants’ amygdala connectivity.
At the start of the study, participants with depression or PTSD showed diminished connectivity between the amygdala and brain areas related to cognitive control, the process by which the brain can vary behavior and how it processes information in the moment based on current goals. The lack of connectivity reflected the severity of the participants’ depression. Twelve weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy improved mood and connectivity between the amygdala and these control regions, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the inferior frontal cortex. These regions also allow for executive functioning, which includes planning, implementation, and focus.
Children of parents with bipolar disorder are prone to anxiety and emotional dysregulation, but treating these symptoms with antidepressants can provoke symptoms of mania. Thus, non-pharmacological treatements for anxiety and depression are needed. A recent study by Melissa DelBello found that twelve weeks of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy improved symptoms of anxiety and mood dysregulation in 20 youth with a bipolar parent. DelBello used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe that the therapy increased activation of brain structures related to emotion and sensing. Amygdala activation differed between those with anxiety and those with mood dysregulation, suggesting that the therapy’s effect was on regions that modulate the amygdala, including prefrontal and insular regions, rather than on the amygdala itself.
Stress is a risk factor for depression and other mental health disorders. Researchers are currently working to clarify how stress leads to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and why trauma early in life has lasting consequences.
Two recent studies in mice examined whether just witnessing a stressful event leads to depression-like behaviors. In one, adult female mice watched a male mouse as it was repeatedly attacked by a larger mouse. After ten days of this, the female mice were socially withdrawn, had lost interest in drinking sucrose, and gave up more easily during a physical challenge. They also lost weight and showed higher levels of the stress hormone corticosterone in their blood. The researchers, led by Sergio Iniguez, believe their study clarifies how witnessing traumatic events can lead to stress-induced mood disorders.
In the other study, by Carlos Bolanos-Guzman, adolescent male mice witnessed another mouse being attacked. Both the mice that went through the physical stress of being attacked and the mice that went through the emotional stress of watching the attacks occur showed similar depressive behaviors to the mice in the previous study—social withdrawal, loss of interest in sucrose, decreased food intake and exploration of the environment, and decreased motivation in physical challenges. These behaviors persisted into adulthood. Both groups of mice also had increased levels of corticosterone and reduced expression of a particular protein in the ventral tegmental area, a part of the brain linked to stress response. Bolanos-Guzman suggests that both physical and emotional stress have lifelong consequences in mice.
The studies were presented at a scientific meeting in December.
Many studies have found links between levels of inflammatory molecules in the blood and depression or depressive symptoms. There has been less research about inflammation in the brain and its possible role in depressive illness. Improvements in positron emission topography (PET) scan technology now allow for better brain imaging that can reveal when microglia are activated. (Microglia serve as the main immune responders in the central nervous system.)
A study by researcher Jeffrey Meyer found evidence of microglial activation in several brain regions (including the prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the insula) in people in an episode of depression who were not receiving any treatments. Participants with more microglial activation in the anterior cingulate cortex and insula had more severe depression and lower body mass indexes.
Meyer, who presented this research at a scientific meeting in December, called it strong evidence for brain inflammation in depressive episodes, and suggested that treatments that target microglial activation would be promising for depression.
However, at the same meeting, researcher Erica Richards reported that she had not been able to replicate Meyer’s results. Her research, which included depressed participants both on and off medication and non-depressed participants, found that depressed participants did show more inflammation in the two brain regions she targeted, the anterior cingulate and the subgenual cortices, but this difference did not reach statistical significance, particularly when patients taking antidepressants were included in the calculations. Richards hopes that with a greater sample size, the data may show a significant difference in brain inflammation between depressed and non-depressed participants.
Studies have found that inflammatory molecules play a role in depression. A recent study by researcher Yu Sun and colleagues used data from clinical trials of anti-inflammatory drugs to show that these drugs also reduced depressive symptoms. The two drugs, which are administered either by a shot or injection into the skin, each consist of antibodies that target the inflammatory molecule IL-6. Sirukumab is being looked at as a possible treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, while siltuximab is a potential treatment for Castleman’s disease, an illness characterized by enlarged lymph nodes. As part of the clinical trials for these drugs, patients with these illnesses responded to survey questions that assessed symptoms of depression and fatigue.
Among patients who reported that they have at least one depressive symptom most of the time and another symptom at least part of the time, the anti-inflammatory drugs significantly improved depressive symptoms compared to placebo. Even when the patients’ inflammatory illnesses did not respond to the anti-inflammatory treatments, their depressive symptoms did improve (symptoms of fatigue did not). An improvement in depressive symptoms was observed after 6 weeks in patients with Castleman’s disease taking siltuximab, and after 12 weeks in patients with rheumatoid arthritis taking sirukumab.
In the sirukumab study, the level of the inflammatory molecule IL-6 in participants’ blood before the study was linked to the magnitude of improvement in their depressive symptoms during the study. IL-6 is elevated in many patients with unipolar and bipolar depression. It is possible that antibodies that target IL-6 could be used to treat primary depression (in the absence of other inflammatory disorders).