Heading Off Early Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder in Children at High Risk

April 16, 2012 · Posted in Risk Factors · Comment 

familyAt the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) annual meeting in Toronto in October 2011, there was a symposium on risk and resilience factors in the onset of bipolar disorder in children who have a parent with the disorder.

Family Focused Therapy Highly Encouraged

Amy Garrett reported that family focused therapy (FFT) in those at risk for bipolar disorder was effective in ameliorating symptomatology compared to treatment as usual. Family focused therapy, pioneered by Dave Miklowitz, PhD of UCLA involves three components. The first component is education about the illness and methods of self-management. The second is enhancement of communication in the family with practice and rehearsal of new modes of conversation. The third component is assistance with problem solving.

In Garrett’s study, 50 children aged 7 to 17 were randomized to family focused treatment or treatment as usual. These children were not only at high risk for bipolar disorder, they were already prodromal, meaning they were already diagnosable with bipolar not otherwise specified (BP-NOS), cyclothymia, or major depressive disorder, and had also shown concurrent depressive and/or manic symptoms in the two weeks prior to the study. At baseline, compared to controls, these children at high risk for full-blown bipolar disorder by virtue of a parental history of the illness showed increased activation of the amygdala and decreased activation of the prefrontal cortex. Most interestingly, after improvement with the family focused therapy (FFT), amygdala reactivity to emotional faces became less prominent and dorsolateral prefrontal cortical activity increased in proportion to the degree of the patient’s improvement.

The discussant for the symposium was Kiki Chang of Stanford University, who indicated that the results of this study of family focused therapy were already sufficient to convince him that FFT was a useful therapeutic procedure in children at high risk for bipolar disorder by virtue of having a parent with a history of bipolar illness. Chang is now employing the therapy routinely in all of his high-risk patients.

Editors Note: This is an extremely important recommendation as it gives families a specific therapeutic process in which to engage children and others in the family when affective behavior begins to become abnormal, even if it does not meet full criteria for a bipolar I or bipolar II disorder.

FFT also meets all the important criteria needed for putting it into widespread clinical practice. Family focused therapy has repeatedly been shown to be effective in adults and adolescents with bipolar illness and now also in these children who are prodromal. The psychoeducational part of FFT is common sense, and dealing with communication difficulties and assisting with problem solving also have merit in terms of stress reduction. Finally, this treatment intervention appears to be not only safe but also highly effective in a variety of different prodromal presentations of affect disorders even if children do not meet full criteria for bipolar disorder. While the few studies of early intervention with psychopharmacological agents have not yet identified efficacious medications for the prodromes of bipolar disorder and in particular medications with a high degree of safety, such family focused therapy appears to be an ideal early intervention.

I would concur with Dr. Chang’s assessment.  Family focused therapy (FFT) should be offered to all children with this high-risk status who have begun to be symptomatic.  Early onset of unipolar depressive disorder or of bipolar disorder carries a more adverse prognosis than the adult onset variety and thus should not be ignored.  If more serious illness is headed off early, it even raises the possibility that the full-blown illness will not develop at all.

Gray Matter Volume Abnormalities

Tomas Hajek of Dalhousie University in Halifax presented data indicating that in children at high risk for bipolar disorder, gray matter volume in the right inferior frontal gyrus is increased. Read more

Treatment Plans for Maladaptive Impulsive Aggression in Children

October 7, 2011 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 

Maladaptive impulsive aggression often co-occurs with other psychiatric illnesses in children, so it can be difficult to find treatment solutions. A symposium at the 57th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry yielded some suggestions. Read on for an overview of impulsive aggression and possible treatment plans.

Aggressive boy

At the symposium, held in New York Oct. 26-31, 2010, panelists called maladaptive aggression the “fever” of child psychiatry (because it is common but also nonspecific) and described the phenomenon as “the language of the inarticulate.” The panelists drew a distinction between impulsive aggression, which describes behavior that is unplanned, unprofitable, and poorly controlled, and another phenomenon, predatory aggression, which describes behavior that is planned, sometimes profitable, and highly controlled.

The speakers on the panel indicated that impulsive aggression is related to other psychiatric syndromes including depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mania, conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder, autism, and schizophrenia.  This raises problems for drug development, as Tom Laughren of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) indicated in one talk at the symposium, because when new treatments are developed, they are studied in the context of only one primary disorder. Read more