Predictors of Bipolar Disorder in At-Risk Youth

November 11, 2015 · Posted in Risk Factors · Comment 

predictors of bipolar illness

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.

Subthreshold Episodes of Mania Best Predictor of Bipolar Disorder in Children

May 18, 2015 · Posted in Risk Factors · Comment 

young girl holding "help" sign

Relatively little attention has been paid to the children of a parent with bipolar disorder, who are at risk not only for the onset of bipolar disorder, but also anxiety, depression, and multiple other disorders. These children deserve a special focus, as on average 74.2% will receive a major (Axis 1) psychiatric diagnosis within seven years.

New research published by David Axelson and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry describes a longitudinal study comparing children who have a parent with bipolar disorder to demographically matched children in the general public. Offspring at high risk for bipolar disorder because they have a parent with the disorder had significantly higher rates of subthreshold mania or hypomania (13.3% versus 1.2%) or what is known as bipolar disorder not otherwise specified (BP-NOS); manic, mixed, or hypomanic episodes (9.2% versus 0.8%); major depressive episodes (32.0% versus 14.9%); and anxiety disorders (39.9% versus 21.8%) than offspring of parents without bipolar disorder. Subthreshold episodes of mania or hypomania (those that resemble but do not meet the full requirements for bipolar disorder in terms of duration) were the best predictor of later manic episodes. This finding was observed prospectively, meaning that patients who were diagnosed with manic episodes during a follow-up assessment were likely to have been diagnosed with a subthreshold manic or hypomanic episode during a previous assessment.

The study included 391 children (aged 6–18) of at least one bipolar parent, and compared these to 248 children of parents without bipolar disorder in the community. The participants took part in follow-up assessments every 2.5 years on average, for a total of about 6.8 years. Each follow-up assessment included retrospective analysis of symptoms that had occurred since the previous assessment.

In addition to having more subthreshold manic or hypomanic episodes; manic, mixed, or hypomanic episodes; and major depressive episodes, the high-risk children also showed more non-mood-related axis 1 disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), disruptive behavior disorders, and anxiety disorders than the children of parents without bipolar disorder. Axelson suggested that monitoring for these symptoms may help with early identification and treatment.

Children with a bipolar parent were diagnosed with bipolar spectrum disorders at rates of 23% compared to 3.2% in the comparison offspring. Mean age of onset of mania or hypomania in the high-risk offspring was 13.4 years. Of those offspring who had a manic episode, more than half had the episode before age 12, with the earliest occurring at age 8.1.

Compared to previous studies of children of parents with bipolar disorder, this study found that the mean age of onset of manic or hypomanic episodes was younger, possibly because other studies did not include young children. Another new finding was that major depressive episodes were risk factors for mania and hypomania but did not always precede the onset of mania or hypomania in the high-risk offspring.

Parents of children who are at high risk for developing bipolar spectrum disorders should be aware of the common precursors to mania—subthreshold manic or hypomanic symptoms and non-mood disorders—and make sure that clinicians assess for these symptoms and differentiate them from the symptoms of depression or other disorders.

Editor’s Note: In Axelson’s study, 74.2% of the offspring of a bipolar parent suffered a major (Axis I) psychiatric disorder. However, 48.4% of the offspring from the comparison group of community controls also had an Axis 1 psychiatric disorder. These high rates of illness and dysfunction indicate the importance of monitoring a variety of symptom areas and getting appropriate evaluation and treatment in the face of symptoms that are associated with impairment in both high risk children and in the general population.

One way of doing this is for parents to join our new Child Network, a study collecting information about how children at risk for bipolar disorder or with symptoms of bipolar disorder are being treated in the community and how well they are doing. Parents rate their children on a weekly basis for depression, anxiety, ADHD, oppositionality, and mania-like symptoms. Parents will be able to produce a longitudinal chart of their children’s symptoms and response to treatment, which may assist their child’s physician with early detection of illness and with treatment. See here for more information and to access informed consent documents.

ADHD and Bipolar Disorder Are Inherited Separately

February 6, 2015 · Posted in Genetics · Comment 

father and son

While attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is fairly common among people with bipolar disorder, the genetic risks of inheriting these two illnesses run separately in families. In a recent study of 465 people and 563 of their first-degree relatives by Susan Shur-Fen Gau and colleagues, people with bipolar I disorder were likely to have relatives with bipolar I disorder, and people with ADHD were likely to have relatives with ADHD, but ADHD did not increase risk of bipolar disorder and vice versa.

The researchers hypothesize that other reasons people might develop both disorders include developmental precursors to the illnesses, neurocognitive functioning, sleep problems, and personality traits such as impulsivity and disinhibition.

Editor’s Note: At a recent scientific meeting, Gau and her colleague Kathleen Merikangas said that people with bipolar disorder in the study were five times more likely to have relatives with bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder and ADHD were comorbid in 37.8% of those with bipolar I disorder, 16.4% in bipolar II disorder, 14% in depression, and 1.1% in normal controls.           

A Symposium on High Risk Studies: Offspring of Parents with Bipolar Disorder

October 6, 2014 · Posted in Risk Factors · Comment 


In a symposium at the 2014 meeting of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology, four researchers shared insights on children who are at higher risk for bipolar disorder because they have a parent with the disorder.

Researcher John Nurnberger has been studying 350 children of parents with bipolar disorder in the US and 141 control children of parents with no major psychiatric disorder, following the participants into adolescence. He found a major affective disorder in 23.4% of the children with parents who have bipolar disorder and 4.4% of the controls. Of the at-risk children, 8.5% had a bipolar diagnosis versus 0% of the controls.

Nurnberger found that disruptive behavior disorders preceded the onset of mood disorders, as did anxiety disorders. These diagnoses predicted the later onset of bipolar disorder in the at-risk children, but not in the controls. A mood disorder in early adolescence predicted a substance abuse disorder later in adolescence among those at risk.

In genome-wide association studies, the genes CACNA1C and ODZ4 are consistently associated with risk of bipolar disorder, but with a very small effect size. Therefore, Nurnberger used 33 different gene variants to generate a total risk score and found that this measure was modestly effective in identifying relative risk of developing bipolar disorder. He hopes that using this improved risk calculation along with family history and clinical variables will allow better prediction of the risk of bipolar onset in the near future.

Researcher Ann Duffy reported on her Canadian studies of children who have a parent with bipolar disorder and thus are at high risk for developing the disorder. In contrast to the studies of Nurnberger et al. and many others in American patients, she found almost no childhood onset of bipolar disorder before late adolescence or early adulthood. She found that anxiety disorders emerge first, followed by depression, and then only much later bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder occurred with comorbid substance abuse disorders in only about 10-20% of cases in 1975, but substance abuse increased to 50% of bipolar cases in 2005. The incidence of comorbid substance disorder and the year at observation correlated strongly, indicating a trend toward increased substance abuse over the 30-year period.

Duffy found that having parents who were ill as opposed to recovered was associated with a more rapid onset of mood disorder in the offspring, usually in early adulthood. Duffy emphasized the need to intervene earlier in children of parents with bipolar disorder, but this is rarely done in clinical practice. Read more

Korean Study of Mental Disorders in Children of Bipolar Parents

September 26, 2014 · Posted in Risk Factors · Comment 

Korean mother and child

Korea, like the US, has a moderate incidence of childhood-onset bipolar disorder among children who are at high risk because they have a parent with bipolar disorder. In a recent study by Young-Sun Cho et al. presented at the 2014 meeting of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology (CINP), 59 out of 100 children with a parent who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder met the criteria for a mental disorder themselves.

Mood disorders were most common. Of the 59 children with mental disorders, 22 were diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and 16 were diagnosed with a depressive disorder. Others included four with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), four with an anxiety disorder, two with disruptive behavior disorders, one with a tic disorder, one with an autistic disorder, and one with schizophrenia and an anxiety disorder.

Editor’s Note: In contrast to studies in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada, where few children are diagnosed with bipolar disorders (even among those who are at high risk because of a family history of bipolar disorder), 22% of high-risk children in Korea were diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This is comparable to or higher than rates at which high-risk children in the US are diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Studies from both the Bipolar Collaborative Network (in which this editor Robert Post is an investigator) and researcher Boris Birmaher et al. found that parents with bipolar disorder often had a variety of other disorders, such as anxiety, alcohol abuse, or substance abuse. These other illnesses also increase the risk of early-onset bipolar disorder in offspring, and this may account for the higher incidence of early-onset bipolar disorder among high-risk children in the US.

Omega-3-Fatty Acids Promising For At-Risk Kids with Depression

November 21, 2013 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 

Salmon & shrimpsSeveral studies in adults and children suggest that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may have antidepressant effects.  At the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in October, Melissa DelBello, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, reported on a new study of omega-3 fatty acids in depressed children who had a parent with bipolar disorder.  The children taking omega-3 fatty acids were more likely to improve than those taking a placebo, but the findings were only of marginal significance.

Cold-water fish are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, and DelBello said salmon is by far the best in this regard. People who live in countries where fish is consumed in greater quantities are less likely to suffer from depression. Other sources of omega-3 fatty acids include shellfish, plant and nut oils, English walnuts, flaxseed, algae oils, and fortified foods.

The omega-3 fatty acids from fish are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), while the omega-3 fatty acids from plants are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which breaks down into EPA and DHA. All of these are anti-inflammatory, though one must consume much greater quantities of ALA to match the benefits of EPA and DHA. In contrast, omega-6 fatty acids, which are much more common in the typical American diet, are pro-inflammatory.

In DelBello’s study of 56 depressed children of a parent with bipolar disorder, the participants were randomized to either 1.8 g of omega-3 fatty acids (1.2 g of EPA and 0.6 g of DHA) or placebo (olive oil). Those who received the omega-3 fatty acids had a 55.6% rate of remission versus 34.5% for those who received placebo, but while the odds ratio of 2.4 favored the omega-3 fatty acids, the difference in remission rates was not statistically significant, likely because of the small size of the study. However, improvement on the Children’s Depression Rating Scale was significantly different across the two groups, with children taking omega-3s improving more. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to have an anticoagulant effect (preventing the clotting of blood), and four children in the study did have prolonged clotting times (but no clinical problems with bleeding).

Editor’s Note: Given the existing literature on omega-3 fatty acids and the trend in this study, omega-3s are worthy of consideration for the treatment and potentially for the prevention of depression in children. This later possibility is further suggested by findings from Australia that, when compared to placebo, omega-3 fatty acids significantly reduced the rate of conversion from prodromal (preliminary) psychotic symptoms to a full-blown diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Loss of Appetite or Weight in Depressed Parents Predicts Depression in Children

October 28, 2013 · Posted in Peer-Reviewed Published Data, Risk Factors · Comment 

Depressed woman uninterested in foodDepression in a parent is one of the factors that best predicts whether a young person will develop depression. Since depression symptoms can vary greatly from person to person and some symptoms are known to be more heritable than others, new research is investigating whether a parent’s profile of symptoms affects their child’s likelihood of developing the illness. A 2013 study by Mars et al. in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry suggests that loss of appetite or weight in a parent with depression is the symptom that most strongly predicts new onset of depression and depressive symptoms in their offspring.

The study observed 337 parent-child pairs. The parents (mostly mothers), who had a history of recurrent unipolar depression, ranged in age from 25–55 years, and their children ranged from 9–17 years. The study lasted four years, during which the families participated in three assessments. Parents’ symptoms were recorded and children were also assessed for symptoms or new development of depression. Thirty percent of the offspring whose parents reported weight loss or low appetite were found to have new onset of depression at followup, compared to nine percent of the offspring whose parents did not have these symptoms.

There are nine symptoms used to diagnose depression in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders: low mood, loss of interest (anhedonia), loss of energy, change in appetite or weight, change in sleep, low self-esteem or guilt, suicidality, psychomotor slowing (retardation), and loss of concentration or indecisiveness. Of these, parental loss of appetite or weight was the only symptom that predicted depression in a child. Interestingly, the severity of parental depression or the presence of other health problems in the parent did not account for the emergence of illness in the children.

Suggestions for Physicians Treating Parents with Bipolar Disorder

October 25, 2013 · Posted in Current Treatments, Potential Treatments · Comment 

family with boy

  1. Support Pregnant Women with Bipolar Disorder
    A. Depression during pregnancy is more common among women with bipolar disorder than among controls–consider cognitive behavioral therapy, omega-3 fatty acids, folate, & rTMS
    B. 52% incidence of post-partum depression (3x higher than controls)–Monitor closely and treat accordingly
  2. Ask Your Affectively Ill Patients About Their Children
  3. Encourage Good Diet and Exercise in These Children
  4. Encourage Watchful Waiting in Families with Children at High Risk
  5. If a Child becomes Symptomatic, Suggest:
    A. Family Focused Therapy (FFT), or other Family-Based Treatment
    B. Low-Risk Interventions Like Nutrition and Sleep Hygiene
  6. If a Child Develops BP-NOS, Encourage:
    A. Mainstream Pharmacotherapy
    B. Increased Social Support (Family, Friends, Advocacy)
  7. If a Child Develops BP-I, Encourage Ongoing Monitoring & Medication
  8. If an Adolescent Becomes Manic, Educate About Substance Abuse and Attempt Primary Prevention of a Substance Abuse Disorder

Youth at High Risk for Bipolar Disorder Show White Matter Tract Abnormalities

June 24, 2013 · Posted in Risk Factors · Comment 

white brainAt a recent scientific conference, researcher Donna Roybal presented research showing that children at high risk of developing bipolar disorder due to a positive family history of the illness had some abnormalities in important white matter tracts in the brain. Prior to illness onset, there was increased fractional anisotropy (FA), a sign of white matter integrity, but following the onset of full-blown bipolar illness there were decreases in FA.

Roybal postulated that these findings show an increased connectivity of brain areas prior to illness onset, but some erosion of the white matter tracts with illness progression.

Editor’s Note:  It will be critical to replicate these findings in order to better define who is at highest risk for bipolar disorder so that attempts at prevention can be explored.

Lithium Reduces Suicide Rate and Increases Longevity

June 3, 2013 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 

happy womanSuicide is an unfortunate consequence of bipolar disorder in 10-15% of patients. A study by Manchia et al. examined suicidal behavior in 737 families of bipolar patients, including 4,919 first-degree relatives. Suicidal behavior ran in families and was more prevalent in those with an early age of onset and a shorter duration of illness. The good news: lithium treatment decreased suicide risk independent of its degree of effectiveness in treating bipolar disorder. Those on lithium also had a longer median age of survival (73 versus 65 years).

Editor’s Note:  These data are consistent with a variety of other studies and raise the question why lithium is used less frequently in the US than in many European countries and Canada. Given its neuroprotective effects, its prevention of suicide and dementia, and its positive effects on longevity, it is hard to see why lithium is not included in the treatment regimens of more patients (at whatever dosage is well-tolerated), even if it alone is not sufficient for treating their manic and depressive episodes.

Research (by this editor Robert Post and colleagues) shows that bipolar disorder is a more pernicious illness in almost all respects in the US compared to the Netherlands and Germany (International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2011). Whether bipolar illness would be less severe in the US if it were more often treated with lithium is an unanswered question. The field cannot provide an answer with systematic prospective controlled data, as most study designs would be unethical (i.e. would deny useful treatment to suffering patients), although one large randomized comparative study called BALANCE did show the superiority of lithium over valproate. However, individual patients in consultation with their physician could evaluate the evidence and request that lithium be considered in their treatment regimen.

If a patient has some clinical predictors of a likely good response to lithium, the decision to include lithium should be a slam-dunk. Some of these include: a positive family history of mood disorder, especially bipolar disorder; a classic course with distinct episodes and clear periods of wellness; manic episodes that are euphoric as opposed to dysphoric (i.e. anxious/irritable); lack of an anxiety disorder or substance abuse comorbidity; the absence of mood-incongruent delusions; and a sequence of episodes of mania followed by a depression and then a well interval (MDI) rather than the sequence of DMI.

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