In new research presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, researcher Tracy Barbour and colleagues revealed that youth with a family history of depression showed more amygdala activation in response to a threat than people without a family history of depression. This amygdala hyperactivity was linked to low resilience to stress and predicted worsening depressive symptoms over the following year.
In the study, 72 non-depressed youth were shown images of cars or human faces or cars that seemed to loom in a threatening way. Brain scans showed increased amygdala activity in participants with a family history of depression compared to those without such a history.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped part of the brain in the temporal lobe that has been linked to emotional reactions and memory, decision-making, and anxiety.
Evidence is mounting that certain behaviors by parents can leave marks on their sperm or eggs that are passed on to their offspring in a process called epigenetics. In a recent study by researcher Mathieu Wimmer and colleagues, male rats that were exposed to cocaine for 60 days (the time it takes for sperm to develop fully) had male offspring who showed diminished short- and long-term spatial memory compared to the offspring of male rats that were not exposed to cocaine. Female offspring were not affected in this way.
The spatial tasks the offspring rats completed depended heavily on the hippocampus. Wimmer and colleagues believe that cocaine use in the fathers decreased the amount of a brain chemical called d-serine in the offspring. D-serine plays a role in memory formation and the brain’s ability to form synaptic connections. Injecting the offspring of rats who were exposed to cocaine with d-serine before the spatial memory tasks normalized the rats’ performance.
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.
Researchers are looking for better ways of predicting whether children at risk for bipolar disorder will go on to develop the illness. A 2015 study by David Axelson and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry reported that in the offspring of parents with bipolar disorder, diagnoses of sub-threshold mania, depression, and disruptive behavior disorders were associated with subsequent diagnosis of full-blown Bipolar I or Bipolar II disorders six to seven years later.
More recently, in an article by Danella M. Hafeman and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the same group of investigators has examined how symptoms (rather than categorical diagnoses, as in the earlier study) predict the development of bipolar disorder. In children and adolescents at high risk for bipolar disorder (because they have a parent with the disorder) three types of symptoms were the best predictors of later bipolar disorder: anxiety/depression at the time participants entered the study, unstable mood or irritability both when entering the study and shortly before a bipolar diagnosis, and low-level manic symptoms observed shortly before diagnosis.
The earlier the age at which a parent was diagnosed with a mood disorder, the greater the risk that the offspring would also be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Youth with all four risk factors (anxiety or depression, mood changes, low-level mania, and a parent who was diagnosed with a mood disorder at an early age) had a 49 percent chance of developing bipolar disorder, compared to a 2 percent chance among those without those risk factors.
Childhood onset of bipolar disorder and long delays until first treatment for depression or mania are both significant predictors of a poor outcome in adulthood compared to adult onsets and shorter delays to treatment. Read more
Exercise isn’t just good for the body—new research suggests it can improve cognition and normalize brain activity.
At the 2015 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researcher Benjamin I. Goldstein reported that 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on a bike improved cognition and decreased hyperactivity in the medial prefrontal cortex in adolescents with and without bipolar disorder.
At the same meeting, researcher Danella M. Hafeman reported that offspring of parents with bipolar disorder who exercised more had lower levels of anxiety.
A plenary address by James J. Hudziak also suggested that exercise, practicing music, and mindfulness training all lead to improvements in brain function and should be an integral part of treatment for children at high risk for bipolar disorder and could be beneficial for all children.
Editor’s Note: Recognizing and responding to mood symptoms is key to the prevention and treatment of bipolar disorder in children and adolescents at high risk for the illness. For these young people, exercise, a nutritious diet, good sleep habits, and family psychoeducation about bipolar disorder symptoms may be a good place to start. Joining our Child Network may also be helpful.
At the 2015 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researcher Jeffrey R. Strawn reported that among children at high risk for bipolar disorder (because of a family history of the disorder) who are prescribed antidepressants for depression and anxiety, adverse reactions are common. These reactions include irritability, aggression, impulsivity, and hyperactivity, and often lead to discontinuation of the antidepressant treatment.
Younger patients at risk for bipolar disorder were more likely to have an adverse reaction to antidepressants. Risk of an adverse reaction decreased 27% with each year of age.
Researcher Juan David Palacio reported at the 2015 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry that compared to offspring of non-ill parents, children of parents with bipolar I disorder are at high risk for psychiatric disorders, particularly bipolar spectrum disorders and substance use disorders. They were also at risk for symptoms of anxiety disorders and conduct disorder. Palacio’s findings from Colombia mirror those from other studies of familial risk and suggest the importance of vigilance to detect these disorders early and provide appropriate treatment. Our Child Network may help.
In the past decade, several studies have indicated that people with bipolar disorder have less ability to recognize the emotions expressed on people’s faces than do healthy controls. A 2013 meta-analysis by Cecilia Samamé and colleagues concluded that facial emotion recognition was deficient in people with bipolar disorder regardless of their current state. A 2011 quantitative review article by Christian G. Kohler and colleagues revealed that this difficulty distinguishing emotions is general, rather than specific to any one emotion.
A 2015 study by Esther Vierck and colleagues in the journal Psychiatry Research showed that both euthymic patients with bipolar disorder and their first-degree relatives without bipolar disorder performed worse on tests of emotion recognition than did normal controls. The findings in healthy relatives suggest that the deficit may be a familial risk factor for the development of bipolar disorder.
These deficits in facial emotion recognition have also been seen in 4 out of 5 studies of children with early-onset bipolar disorder, including those who are euthymic. 2008 studies by Melissa A. Brotman and colleagues showed that even children just at high risk for bipolar disorder due to a family history of the disorder had deficient emotion recognition.
This literature indicates that deficiencies in facial emotion recognition consistently accompany bipolar disorder and may also be a sign that a child or teenager is at risk for bipolar disorder. Since these deficits can create social and interpersonal difficulties, it may be useful to teach better emotion recognition skills to people with bipolar disorder or those at high risk for the illness.
At the 2015 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, Ben Goldstein described a study of cognitive dysfunction in pediatric bipolar disorder. Children with bipolar disorder were three years behind in executive functioning (which covers abilities such as planning and problem-solving) and verbal memory.
There were other abnormalities. Youth with bipolar disorder had smaller amygdalas, and those with larger amygdalas recovered better. Perception of facial emotion was another area of weakness for children (and adults) with bipolar disorder. Studies show increased activity of the amygdala during facial emotion recognition tasks.
Goldstein reported that nine studies show that youth with bipolar disorder have reduced white matter integrity. This has also been observed in their relatives without bipolar disorder, suggesting that it is a sign of vulnerability to bipolar illness. This could identify children who could benefit from preemptive treatment because they are at high risk for developing bipolar disorder due to a family history of the illness.
There are some indications of increased inflammation in pediatric bipolar disorder. CRP, a protein that is a marker of inflammation, is elevated to a level equivalent to those in kids with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis before treatment (about 3 mg/L). CRP levels may be able to predict onset of depression or mania in those with minor symptoms, and is also associated with depression duration and severity. Goldstein reported that TNF-alpha, another inflammatory marker, may be elevated in children with psychosis.
Goldstein noted a study by Ghanshyam Pandey that showed that improvement in pediatric bipolar disorder was related to increases in BDNF, a protein that protects neurons. Cognitive flexibility interacted with CRP and BDNF—those with low BDNF had more cognitive impairment as their CRP increased than did those with high BDNF.
At a symposium at the 2015 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorder, researcher Rudolph Uher discussed FORBOW, his study of families at high risk for mood disorders. Offspring of parents with bipolar disorder and severe depression are at higher risk for a variety of illnesses than offspring of healthy parents.
Uher’s data came from a 2014 meta-analysis by Daniel Rasic and colleagues (including Uher) that was published in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin. The article described the risks of developing mental illnesses for 3,863 offspring of parents with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression compared to offspring of parents without such disorders.
Previous literature had indicated that offspring of parents with severe mental illness had a 1-in-10 likelihood of developing a severe mental illness of their own by adulthood. Rasic and colleagues suggested that the risk may actually be higher—1-in-3 for the risk of developing a psychotic or major mood disorder, and 1-in-2 for the risk of developing any mental disorder. An adult child may end up being diagnosed with a different illness than his or her parents.
At the symposium, Uher focused on families in which a parent had bipolar disorder. These families made up 1,492 of the offspring in the Rasic study. The table at right shows the risk of an illness among the offspring of bipolar parents compared to that risk among offspring of healthy parents, otherwise known as relative risk. (For example, offspring of parents with bipolar disorder are 4.24 times more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder themselves than are offspring of non-bipolar parents.) The table also shows the percentage of offspring of parents with bipolar disorder who have each type of disorder.
Editor’s Note: These data emphasize the importance of vigilance for problems in children who are at increased risk for mental disorders because they have a family history of mental disorders. One way for parents to better track mood and behavioral symptoms is to join our Child Network.