Early Intervention Works in Schizophrenia: Also Needed in Bipolar Disorder

October 4, 2018 · Posted in Current Treatments, Peer-Reviewed Published Data · Comment 

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For twenty years, evidence has shown that early intervention can ameliorate many of the adverse consequences of schizophrenia. In a 2018 article in the journal Annual Review of Clinical Psychiatry titled “Transforming the treatment of schizophrenia in the United States: The RAISE Initiative,” Lisa B. Dixon and colleagues described the importance of early intervention in schizophrenia. RAISE stands for Recovery After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode. Dixon and colleagues emphasize that shortening the time that a patient’s psychosis goes untreated, which averages 74 months, is critical to achieving good outcomes. In parallel to these consistent findings, researchers of bipolar disorder (including this editor Robert M. Post and colleagues) have found that an increased length of the interval before treatment is initiated in childhood-onset bipolar disorder is associated with a poor outcome in adulthood.

The RAISE program consists of four interventions: personalized psychopharmacology using a computerized decision support system, individual resilience therapy, family psychoeducation and therapy, and supportive employment and education. Compared with patients receiving standard treatments, patients who participated in the RAISE program showed greater improvements on almost all measures, including the Heinrichs-Carpenter Quality of Life Scale (main outcome), the Calgary Depression Scale for Schizophrenia, the Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale, treatment duration, and engagement in work and school. Moreover, the improvements were more substantial among patients with a shorter duration of untreated psychosis.

Editor’s Note: These findings are of great importance in their own right, but they also have great implications for treatment and research efforts in bipolar disorder. A 2013 randomized study by Lars Kessing and colleagues published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that in bipolar patients hospitalized for a first or second episode of mania, two years of comprehensive treatment with psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, and illness education that included mood monitoring and early symptom recognition was vastly superior to typical treatment, and this held true even six years later. In a 2014 article in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry and a 2016 article in the journal Bipolar Disorders, researcher Jan Marie Kozicky and colleagues reported that in patients hospitalized with a first episode of mania, cognitive functioning and brain imaging abnormalities, respectively, returned to normal over the next year only if the patients experienced no further mood episodes. The message is clear: we must treat the first episode of mania comprehensively to avoid long-term deterioration, which occurs as a function of the number of episodes of mania or depression a patient experiences. However, this early multimodal approach is rarely taken in the US.

In schizophrenia, Dixon and colleagues noted that: “After the RAISE study reports were made available, Congress allocated additional funding to the community mental health …program, leading to growth in the number of…programs across the United States; they were expected to reach 48 states in 2018.”

The contrast between these efforts in schizophrenia and their virtual absence in bipolar disorder is incomprehensible and tragic. Studies in early schizophrenia have been funded for 25 years, while almost none have been funded in bipolar disorder, even in recent years. Community mental health programs for early schizophrenia will soon exist in 48 states; for patients with bipolar disorder there are no programs available in any state that I am aware of. The incidence of bipolar is about three times that of schizophrenia, and the long-term outcomes are often as devastating in bipolar disorder as in schizophrenia. There is a high incidence of drug abuse; social, educational and occupational deficits; and suicide in bipolar disorder. Early intervention with the many safe supplements, nutraceuticals, and well-tolerated drugs that are currently available to adult patients should be studied in young people with bipolar disorder, but such studies neither being funded nor conducted.

The reality is that childhood-onset bipolar disorder is poorly recognized and treated in the US, largely because of a paucity of treatment-related studies and knowledge about the best options for these young patients. If a reader of the BNN knows how to influence advocacy groups, leaders in the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), or influential politicians, it would be useful to take the initiative in bringing some of these deficits and disparities to their attention. Something must be done; ideas about how to do it are welcome. My own efforts to get funding for a childhood-onset bipolar research network in collaboration with such luminaries in the field as David Miklowitz (UCLA), Kiki D. Chang (Stanford University), Boris Birmaher (University of Pittsburg), Benjamin Goldstein (Stonybrook Research Institute), Eric Youngstrom (UNC, Chapel Hill), Soledad Romero (Hospital Clinic of Barcelona), and Josefina Castro Fornieles (University of Barcelona) have not been successful. We will keep trying, but the field needs to reach beyond the many investigators who are advocating for more treatment research to other people with more influence.

Early Intervention Improves Outcomes in Early-Stage Schizophrenia

 

doctor with teen boy

A recent meta-analysis of 10 studies found that early intervention after a first episode of psychosis or in the early stages of a schizophrenia spectrum disorder led to better patient outcomes than treatment as usual.
The meta-analysis by researcher Christoph U. Correll and colleagues appeared in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in 2018. The 10 studies that were included had randomized a total of 2,176 patients to receive either treatment as usual or early intervention services, which typically include efforts at early detection of symptoms, early treatment with low doses of antipsychotic medication, interventions to prevent relapse, and strategies to help patients return to normal work and social activities.

Those patients who received early intervention services were less likely to discontinue treatment, were less likely to have a psychiatric hospitalization, were more involved in school or work, and had less severe symptoms, including both positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia.

The authors called for better funding and implementation of early intervention services in early psychosis or the beginning stages of schizophrenia.

Editor’s Note: This finding with regard to schizophrenia spectrum disorders emphasizes the enormous disparity in allocation of research resources for the study of early psychosis versus early bipolar disorder, where almost no studies of this kind have been done.

The mean age of the patients in this psychosis meta-analysis was 27.5 years. Symptoms of bipolar disorder can often begin earlier, in childhood, and early onset of bipolar disorder predicts poor long-term outcomes into adulthood and is associated with a high risk of substance abuse and suicide. This editor (Robert M. Post) and many colleagues have witnessed two decades of scientific literature on early-onset bipolar disorder. We know that early intervention is necessary, but more treatment studies are needed at the early stages of the illness, and calls for funding treatment-focused research have gone unheeded.

More advocacy is needed among families affected by bipolar disorder and advocacy groups interested in better treatment of bipolar disorder. We must try to change the abysmal status quo and campaign publicly, privately, and politically for more funds and public health attention to be directed toward early intervention in bipolar disorder.