Two studies published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2015 suggest that the new atypical antipsychotic brexpiprazole (trade name Rexulti) safely improves depression when added to antidepressant treatment. The 6-week studies, both by Michael E. Thase and colleagues, compared brexpiprazole to placebo in people who had not responded adequately to one to three antidepressants and were taking at least one antidepressant at the time of the study.
The studies examined the effectiveness of different doses of brexpiprazole. Doses of 2mg/day and 3mg/day were more effective than placebo, while a dose of 1mg/day was not. The drug was well-tolerated by patients at each of these doses, although those taking the 3mg/day reported more side effects than those taking 2mg/day. The side effects included restless legs, weight gain, and headaches.
Like the atypical antipsychotic aripiprazole (Abilify), brexpiprazole partially blocks and partially stimulates dopamine receptors. While aripiprazole allows 61% activity at dopamine D2 receptors, brexpiprazole allows 43%. It is not yet clear how the new drug’s effects may differ from those of aripiprazole.
Another relatively new atypical antipsychotic drug, cariprazine (Vraylar) is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for schizophrenia and mania, but not yet for bipolar depression or as an add-on treatment to antidepressants in unipolar depression, although there are placebo-controlled trials showing that cariprazine can also treat these conditions.
Like aripiprazole and brexpiprazole, cariprazine also partially blocks and partially stimulates dopamine receptors. Unlike them, cariprazine is more potent at dopamine D3 receptors, which are linked to mood, motivation, and drug reward, than at D2 receptors, which are linked to motor control. It is not yet clear how these differences may change treatment outcomes or side effects.
At the 2015 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, researcher John Geddes presented an important study showing in inadequate responders to quetiapine that compared to adding placebo, adding the anticonvulsant lamotrigine to their treatment improved depression rapidly and lastingly. Some psychiatrists have been prescribing this combination to patients for some time, but this is the first formal clinical trial documenting its efficacy. The article was published online in December in the journal Lancet Psychiatry.
Researcher Guy Goodwin described details of the study, called CEQUEL, at the meeting. It included 202 patients with bipolar I or II disorder who required treatment for a depressive episode. Participants who did not respond completely to 14 days of treatment with quetiapine were prescribed either an additional dose of lamotrigine or a placebo. Lamotrigine was very slowly titrated up to maximum doses of 200mg/day. Its antidepressant effects were striking. They began early and persisted for 50 weeks. (The published article covers only the first 12 weeks.) Response rates for the combination of quetiapine and lamotrigine were 52%, compared to 22% for quetiapine alone. Remission rates were 35% for quetiapine and lamotrigine and 12% for quetiapine alone.
Folic acid interaction
Another part of the study assessed whether folic acid supplements could improve outcomes, but in fact they did the opposite, reversing the benefits of adding lamotrigine. Geddes did not have an explanation for why this might be the case. Lamotrigine can inhibit folate metabolism, and it had been thought that adding folate would be useful. Until further data are gathered on folate augmentation in patients taking the combination of lamotrigine and quetiapine, folate should be used cautiously if at all in these patients.
Possible combination with lithium
In Goodwin’s talk, he also noted lithium’s potential to lower suicide rates, premature mortality, and cognitive impairment, and to increase hippocampal and cortical volume.
Since lamotrigine was shown to potentiate the antidepressant effects of lithium in a study by Van der Loos and colleagues, and quetiapine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the prevention of depression as an adjunct to lithium (or valproate), there might be theoretical acute and long-term benefits to combining the three: lithium, quetiapine, and lamotrigine.
A Danish working group has released guidelines for prescribing psychotropic drugs to women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. After a comprehensive review of the literature, researchers from several different Danish medical societies reported that sertraline and citalopram are the first choice among selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for depression in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. The working group suggested that women with bipolar disorder who need a mood stabilizer because of frequent relapses could be prescribed lithium, though lithium use is associated with a small risk of cardiac abnormalities in the child. Lamotrigine may also be used, and has not been associated with any congenital abnormalities.
Valproate and carbamazepine are not recommended for use during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Use of valproate among women of child-bearing age should particularly be avoided due to several risks for the potential child. These include spina bifida and other serious congenital problems, but also severe developmental delay and loss of about 9 IQ points. Other possible treatments for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in pregnant and breastfeeding women include olanzapine, risperidone, quetiapine, and clozapine. The data about the safety of these medications are not extensive.
The working group included members of the Danish Psychiatric Society, the Danish Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the Danish Paediatric Society, and the Danish Society of Clinical Pharmacology. The recommendations may be found in an article by E.R. Larsen and colleagues in a 2015 supplement to the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.
Diet is important. A study of more than 20,000 mothers revealed that those with unhealthy diets had children with more externalizing disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder, and mania. Diets high in fat and sugar were linked to depression. The Nurses’ Health Study, a long-term epidemiological study of 50,000 women, showed that people who exercised more were less likely to be depressed, while lower muscle mass was associated with greater depression. Exercise also has anti-inflammatory effects.
Avoiding smoking has benefits, too. A study by Pasco and colleagues showed that people who smoke are at increased risk for a new onset of a mood disorder. Smoking is associated with onset of a more severe mood disorder earlier in life, suicide attempts, alcohol and substance abuse, and decreased response to treatment. Fortunately, quitting smoking can reverse some of these risks.
A new meta-analysis suggests that right unilateral ultrabrief electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be a better choice than standard brief pulse ECT for the treatment of severe depression. Researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia led by Colleen Loo say that while standard ECT (with a pulsewidth of 1.0 ms) is recommended when urgency is paramount, ultrabrief ECT (with a pulsewidth of 0.3 ms) is better for patients at risk for cognitive side effects or those who do not require an urgent response. The researchers’ findings were reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in July.
Loo and colleagues analyzed the findings of six different studies that compared right unilateral standard brief pulse ECT with ultrabrief pulse ECT and included a total of 689 patients. Standard ECT was more effective, producing more improvement in mood and more remissions, and working faster than ultrabrief ECT. However, standard ECT also produced greater cognitive side effects in every area tested, including thinking, learning and recall, and memory.
(When bilateral ECT is used, the cognitive effects are even worse, and researcher Harold Sacheim and colleagues have reported that the severity of the impairment in autobiographic memory is directly proportional to the number of bilateral ECT treatments a patient received, even when measured one year after the last session of bilateral ECT. This editor (Robert Post) believes bilateral ECT should be avoided if at all possible, as cognitive side effects can occasionally be severe.)
When Loo and colleagues removed nonrandomized trials from the analysis, the differences in efficacy between ultrabrief and standard right unilateral ECT were not statistically significant. Loo told Medscape Medical News that while the differences in efficacy between brief and ultrabrief ECT are minimal, the differences in side effects are greater. Right unilateral ultrabrief ECT works about as well as standard right unilateral brief pulse ECT, but preserves patients’ cognitive function better.
In August the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the marketing of the MagVita TMS Therapy system from the company MagVenture. This machine can be used to provide transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to patients with major depression that has not responded to antidepressant drugs. A TMS system uses magnets placed close to the head to stimulate the brain.
There are several existing systems that can provide TMS. The Neuronetics Neurostar TMS machine was the first one to be approved, in 2008. Then came Brainway’s Deep TMS machine. Now MagVenture says that the benefits of their new system include a simple design, low operating costs, no disposable components, and safety and efficacy rates comparable to those of other FDA-approved TMS devices.
Treatment with the MagVita system is typically provided five times per week for a duration of six weeks.
As TMS treatment becomes available to more patients, coverage by insurance companies is also increasing, but is still not guaranteed for patients in the US.
Adolescents whose parents have a history of depression are at greater risk for depression themselves. A new study suggests that a cognitive-behavioral prevention program aimed at these teens can reduce depression rates compared to the usual care.
The study, by David A. Brent and colleagues in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, included 316 participants aged 13–17, each of whom had a parent with a current or prior depression. Half of the participants participated in the cognitive-behavioral prevention program in addition to usual care initiated by their families. The program consisted of 8 weeks of 90-minute group sessions focused on developing positive thinking habits and improving problem solving, followed by six monthly sessions. The training was based on the Adolescents Coping with Depression program described in a June 2009 JAMA article by Garber et al.
The group who participated in the prevention program had a lower incidence of depression than the group who received only the usual care, and this difference persisted over six years of followup. Most of this effect was due to a reduced incidence of depression in the first nine months following the intervention. (Depression was roughly equal among the two groups at two later followups.)
Importantly, the benefit of the prevention program was only seen among adolescents whose parents were not depressed at the time of enrollment in the study, underscoring the importance of treating parents in order to keep the whole family healthy.
Benefits of the prevention program included reductions in onset of depression and days depressed, and improvement in interpersonal and academic competence.
Brent and colleagues say that the study shows that it is possible to prevent depression, and this can have long-term developmental consequences. They encourage focusing on the entire family’s mental health treatment.
While the main benefits came early, Brent suggests that booster sessions for teens who begin to show symptoms of depression might refresh the benefits of the prevention program at a later time.
Editor’s Note: This study has enormous health implications as depression in adolescents tends to recur and is associated with a more difficult course than depression beginning in adulthood. Preventing depressions would theoretically have positive consequences for both psychiatric and physical health, as depression is associated with increased risk of suicide and decreased longevity from increases in cardiovascular disease. Researcher Joan Luby recently reported that children with prepubescent onset of depression have decreased hippocampal volume in adolescence, so it is possible that preventing depression may have positive implications for brain volume and function.
A new meta-analysis presented at the 2015 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry has clarified the efficacy of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in major depression. TDCS is a treatment in which electrodes deliver a steady low level of electrical stimulation to the brain. The meta-analysis presented by Andre Brunoni and colleagues used individual patient data from six recent studies comparing tDCS treatment to a sham treatment, totaling 289 patients. TDCS treatment was superior to the sham control in terms of antidepressant response (34% to 19%), remission rates (23.1% to 12.7%), and improvement in depression.
After adjusting for confounding factors, the researchers found that patients who had failed to respond to previous treatments were less likely to respond well to tDCS than other patients. They also found that higher doses of tDCS (in terms of current density, duration, and number of sessions) predicted a better response than lower doses.
Repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) is a treatment for depression in which magnets placed near the skull stimulate electrical impulses in the brain. In a poster presented at the 2015 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, Martin Lan and colleagues presented results of the first study of structural changes in the brain following rTMS.
In the study, 27 patients in an episode of major depression underwent magnetic resonance brain scans before and after receiving rTMS treatment over their left prefrontal cortices. Lan and colleagues reported that several cortical regions related to cognitive appraisal, the subjective experience of emotion, and self-referential processing increased in volume following rTMS treatment: the anterior cingulate, the cingulate body, the precuneous, right insula, and gray matter in the medial frontal gyrus. The increases ranged from 5.3% to 15.7%, and no regions decreased in volume. More than 92% of the participants showed increased gray matter in all of these regions.
The brain changes were not correlated with antidepressant response to rTMS, but suggest a possible mechanism by which rTMS is effective in some people. Lan and colleagues concluded that rTMS likely had neuroplastic effects in areas of the brain that are important for emotion regulation.
A new longitudinal study of 391 youth at risk for bipolar disorder revealed some predictors of the disorder. The study by Danella M. Hafeman and colleagues was presented at the 2015 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry. The participants were aged 6–18 and each had a parent with bipolar disorder. Over the course of the study, 40 developed an illness on the bipolar spectrum, including 21 who developed bipolar I or II. The participants were assessed for various descriptive characteristics and those who developed bipolar disorder were compared to those who developed major depressive disorder.
The most important predictors of bipolar disorder were parental assessment of internalizing symptoms of anxiety or depression, self-assessment of mood changeability, and self-assessment of hostility. A diagnosis of bipolar disorder not otherwise specified (BP-NOS) was the only predictor of a later diagnosis of bipolar I or II.
Editors Note: These data resemble findings from a 2015 study by David Axelson and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry that used the same cohort of participants. The Axelson study indicated that a categorical diagnosis of a major psychiatric disorder occurred in 74% of the offspring of a bipolar parent compared to about 50% in a control group from the community. Depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and oppositional disorders were even more common than bipolar disorder in the at-risk population.
The presence of a major psychiatric diagnosis in about three-quarters of the offspring of a parent with bipolar disorder suggests the importance of early vigilance. One way to track symptoms of depression, anxiety, ADHD, oppositional behavior, and bipolar disorder is to join the Child Network, a secure online platform for rating children’s moods, medications, and side effects. These weekly ratings can be collected longitudinally and printed out to help parents and clinicians assess mood difficulties in their children.