Evidence from multiple studies has indicated the importance of beginning preventative treatment, particularly with lithium, early in the course of bipolar disorder. A 2016 comprehensive literature review by researcher Katie Joyce and colleagues in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders concluded that psychoeducation and medication are more effective in bipolar disorder when applied in earlier stages of the illness rather than later stages.
Several studies suggest that treatment for bipolar disorder should be started specifically after the first manic episode.
A 2014 study by researcher Lars Kessing and colleagues in the British Journal of Psychiatry examined 4,700 patients treated with lithium in Denmark. Kessing and colleagues found that those who started treatment after one manic episode were less likely to find lithium ineffective than those who started later.
Another study by researcher Michael Berk and colleagues presented at the International Society for Bipolar Disorders found that after a first manic episode, a year of treatment with lithium was much more effective on all measures of outcome, including mania and depression ratings, brain imaging, and neuropsychological functioning, than a year when patients were randomized to quetiapine (Seroquel).
Researcher Lakshmi Yatham and colleagues presented research at the International Society for Bipolar Disorders showing that patients recovered from the neuropsychological deficits associated with a first episode of mania if they were well treated and had no further episodes, while those who had new episodes did not return to their baseline capabilities. This suggests that early treatment that prevents future episodes helps maintain a healthy brain.
Kessing and colleagues previously reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2013 that patients randomized to two years of treatment in an outpatient clinic specializing in mood disorders following a first hospitalization for mania had 40% fewer recurrences of bipolar episodes over the next six years than those who received treatment as usual. These data indicate that early treatment, which may include psychotherapy, medications, mood charting (i.e. keeping a daily record of symptoms) and illness education, can improve the long-term course of illness. Lithium is often a key component of such treatment.
Editor’s Note: This type of intensive, ongoing treatment is not the norm after a first manic hospitalization in the United States, but it should be. Given the new data on the impact of starting lithium after a first episode of mania, and lithium’s superiority over quetiapine in the year following a first episode, lithium treatment should be standard following a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
In the past, sometimes doctors have recommended waiting until a patient has had multiple episodes of mania before beginning preventative treatment with lithium. This now appears to be a mistake.
Lithium protects against depressive as well as manic recurrences, and there is also evidence that it increases hippocampal and cortical volume, helping prevent cognitive deterioration in those with mild cognitive impairment. Lithium is also the most effective mood stabilizer for preventing suicide, and it increases the length of telomeres (caps on the end of DNA strands), thus preventing a wide range of medical and psychiatric illnesses. Lithium may need to be combined with other drugs to achieve a complete remission, but using it after a first mania is a good place to start.