While the reasons why one person develops bipolar disorder and another does not remain mysterious, the current thinking is that genes contribute some risk while immunological abnormalities contribute other risks. Researchers have identified certain antibodies whose levels spike during an episode of mania, as if the patient is having an immune reaction. These are referred to as biomarkers or inflammatory markers.
While various biomarkers for mania have been identified, until recently their effects had only been examined independently. A 2013 article by Dickerson et al. published in the journal PLOS ONE examined four biomarkers in combination. Each was a type of antibody: to the NR peptide of the NMDA receptor, to gliadin (a protein derived from gluten), to Toxoplasma gondii (a parasitic protozoan), and to Mason-Pfizer Monkey Virus. Measures of these four types of antibodies made up a combined inflammation score for participants in the study.
The study compared 57 patients presenting with a manic episode with 207 non-psychiatric controls and 330 patients who had had recent onset of psychosis, schizophrenia, or bipolar depression. The combined inflammation score of the mania group was significantly higher than the other groups at the time of hospital admission and at the time of evaluation several days later. It had returned to normal (i.e. not different from the other groups) at followup six months later, although those with the highest combined inflammation scores were at risk for re-hospitalization during that period.
The findings of this study suggest that hospitalization for mania is associated with immune activation, and the level of this activation predicts subsequent re-hospitalization. Treatments for mania that target this inflammatory response should be investigated.
There is mounting evidence that inflammation and metabolic problems are related to depression. A recent study by Vogelzangs et al. in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology examined 313 patients being treated for depression to see whether levels of inflammatory markers in the blood and metabolic factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference predicted whether those patients would still (or again) be diagnosable with depression two years later.
Several factors predicted later depression, including high levels of the inflammatory marker interleukin-6, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, higher than normal triglycerides, and high blood glucose (hyperglycemia).
People who had four or more types of inflammatory or metabolic abnormalities had almost twice the odds of having chronic depression. Among those study participants who had only recently begun taking antidepressant medication, having four or more of these risk factors made them almost 7 times more likely to be depressed during follow-up.
One explanation for the connection between inflammatory and metabolic dysregulation and depression is that inflammation and metabolic problems worsen and complicate a patient’s depression and reduce the patient’s responsiveness to traditional antidepressants. Alternative ways of treating these patients aimed at their inflammation and metabolism may be necessary.
Research has shown a link between inflammation and mental illness. Inflammation leads to a series of chemical changes that can overexcite neurons and interfere with the protection of neurons.
Inflammation increases the production of indoleamine-pyrrole 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO), an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid tryptophan into kynurenic acid and quinolinic acid. They in turn increase glutamate, the main excitatory neurotransmitter, and decrease brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which keeps neurons healthy.
Kynurenic acid stimulates microglia, which clean up the central nervous system as a form of immune defense, to produce inflammatory cytokine proteins.
Quinolinic acid directly stimulates glutamate receptors and encourages glutamate release from astrocytes. Quinolinic acid also blocks glutamate removal that would normally occur through reuptake into the astrocytes, leading to more stimulation of extrasynaptic glutamate receptors and decreases in BDNF.
Quinolinic acid’s effects are opposite to those of the antidepressant ketamine, which blocks glutamate NMDA receptors and increases BDNF. When people are given interferon protein for the treatment of cancers, quinolinic acid increases in cerebrospinal fluid, inducing depression. The severity of depression induced is correlated with the patient’s levels of quinolinic acid.
It appears that ketamine has indirect anti-inflammatory effects through its ability to block glutamate receptors and increase BDNF.
At a recent scientific meeting, researcher Andrew H. Miller presented data on infliximab, an inhibitor of the inflammatory cytokine TNF alpha that is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and is being explored for the treatment of depression. As previously reported in BNN Volume 16, Issue 2 from 2012, the drug was not effective overall among the depressed patients, but in a subgroup of patients with high levels of the inflammatory marker CRP, infliximab was highly effective. Miller emphasized that patients do not fail to respond to treatments; it is doctors who fail, or drugs that fail. He explained that there is tremendous heterogeneity in people’s illnesses, and doctors must get better at sorting out what treatments will work for each patient, striving toward personalized therapeutics.
There are many clinical correlates or predictors of nonresponse to antidepressants used in unipolar depression. These include inflammation, obesity, stress in childhood, anxiety disorder comorbidity, substance abuse comorbidity, and medical comorbidity.
Editor’s Note: How do we doctors target these clinical correlates of illness for better therapeutic effects? We are just starting to learn, and until we identify good markers for predicting illness, the best we can do is carry out carefully sequenced clinical trials of medications and therapies with different mechanisms of action.
Patients can assist their physicians and clinicians by engaging in precise, preferably nightly charting of their mood, functioning, medications, life events, side effects, and other symptoms such as anxiety on a personal calendar. Several of these are available for free download, and there are other longitudinal screening instruments, such as the website and app What’s My M3.
A good personal response to a novel treatment or a poor response to an Federal Drug Administration–approved treatment trumps anything that is written in the research literature. The best way to achieve the best outcome is to engage in excellent monitoring of symptoms and side effects that can guide the next steps in therapeutics.
Repeated social defeat stress (when an intruder mouse is repeatedly threatened by a larger mouse defending its home territory) is often used as a model to study human depression. Animals repeatedly exposed to social defeat stress start to exhibit depression-like behaviors such as social avoidance and loss of interest in sucrose. Georgia Hodes, a researcher at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, reported at a recent scientific meeting that repeated defeat stress–induced behavior was blocked when IL-6, an inflammatory cytokine released by white blood cells in the blood, was inhibited. The central nervous system did not appear to be involved.
Interestingly, mice with more white blood cells and more IL-6 release at baseline (prior to the social defeat stress) were more likely to show the defeat-stress depressive behaviors.
Editor’s Note: The higher number and greater reactivity of white blood cells seen in these mice could be a clinical marker of vulnerability to defeat stress, and such findings are worthy of study in human depression. White blood cells are critical to fighting infection and sometimes their overactivity can contribute to inflammation. In meta-analyses, a subgroup of depressed patients consistently show elevated inflammatory markers (including IL-1, IL-6, TNF alpha, and CRP), and it remains to be seen whether these markers of inflammation are generated in the central nervous system or come from white blood cells in the blood, and whether their targeted suppression could be a new route to antidepressant effects (as in the study of defeat stress in mice).
People with bipolar disorder often show signs of inflammation. These could eventually help clarify diagnosis, illness activity, and treatment response, and predict illness progression. Previous studies have shown increases in c-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin-6 (IL-6), and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) in adults with mood disorder. These high levels tend to improve with medications, are related to illness severity, and are also related to manic and mixed states.
At the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), Ben Goldstein reported on a study that examined levels of TNF alpha, IL-6, and high sensitivity CRP (hsCRP) in 123 adolescents with an average age of 20.4 years, who had been ill for an average of 12.7 years.
CRP levels in adolescents with bipolar illness were equivalent to those with rheumatoid arthritis, and much higher than healthy controls. In children with bipolar disorder, higher levels of CRP were related to more time symptomatic. High hsCRP was related to lower socio-economic status and to substance abuse disorders.
Increases in IL-6 were linked to a longer time to achieve remission and more weeks depressed. High IL-6 was related to duration of illness, positive family history of substance use, and family conflict.
High TNF alpha was related to low socioeconomic status (SES), self-injury, suicidal ideation, and positive life events.
Goldstein said studies of these markers could eventually lead to therapeutic advances, but the process would be long and would require several steps: proof of concept studies, prospective validation studies in independent samples, and demonstration of clinical gains over standard predictive markers, culminating in enhanced patient care and outcome through better, faster prediction of response.
Editor’s Note: Ideally clinicians could jump ahead by immediately attempting to determine whether adding a medication with direct anti-inflammatory effects could enhance therapeutic effects in children with elevated inflammatory markers. Treating inflammation could also theoretically help prevent cognitive deterioration and decrease the considerable risk for cardiovascular dysfunction in patients with bipolar disorder.
Barbara Gracious of Ohio State University became interested in the inflammatory marker CRP through studying vitamin D3 deficiency. Vitamin D is a neurosteroid, and low levels of it have been associated with risk of schizophrenia, cardiovascular disease (heart attack), diabetes, mood disorders, cognitive deficits, autoimmune disease, and obesity. High CRP levels are related to low vitamin D, to obesity, and to other inflammatory markers such as IL-6 and TNF alpha.
Gracious measured these levels of CRP in 621 children participating in the Longitudinal Study of Manic Symptoms (LAMS), who were followed up for many years. She found that those with higher levels of CRP developed a mood episode approximately two years earlier than those with normal levels. CRP binds phosphocholine, which activates complement, a kind of protein that induces inflammation. CRP is elevated in 14% to 53% of patients with depression and anxiety.
Copeland et al. reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2012 that after a first depression, high CRP was associated with relapse. CRP also increases in adolescent females (who are at increased risk for depression).
Editor’s Note: These findings suggest the potential importance not only of using CRP as an indicator of depression risk, but also of targeting CRP levels in the hopes of reducing risk of a mood episode in children with elevated inflammatory markers. Supplementing vitamin D3 in those with low levels would be a good place to start, as would preventing or treating obesity and promoting good sleep hygiene and exercise. The potential role of medications with direct anti-inflammatory effects such as aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) or minocycline deserves further study.
Balanced diet, exercise, and good sleep habits may be easier said (or recommended) than done. Such lifestyle advice must be delivered with motivational interviewing, and instilled through practice, positive feedback, encouragement, and more practice. In children in general, and especially in those at high risk for a mood episode due to a family history of a unipolar or bipolar mood disorder, starting things off right from the outset with good diet, exercise, and sleep routines would be highly recommended. The benefits for long-term health and wellbeing could be enormous.
The results of good health behaviors may be mediated through several pathways. They could lessen inflammation and obesity, increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF, which is important for new synapses and long-term memory) and neurogenesis (both of which are increased by exercise), and even lengthen the telomeres that cap the ends of each strand of DNA (short ones are associated with a variety of medical and psychiatric illnesses).
Autoimmune diseases, in which the body’s immune system begins to attack healthy tissue, have become much more common in recent decades. Some autoimmune problems are related to overproduction of TH17 cells, immune cells that produce a particular inflammatory protein (interleukin-17), but it is not clear why some people’s bodies start producing too many TH17 cells. Three studies published in the journal Nature in 2013 suggest that salt may play a role. They were recently summarized in Scientific American.
In the first study, researchers developed a model of how TH17 cells are controlled. In the second, they observed how immune cells are produced over a period of several days. The researchers noticed that a protein called serum glucocorticoid kinase 1 (SGK1), which is known to regulate salt in cells, seemed to act as a signal for TH17 production. Mouse cells in high-salt environments had more SGK1 and produced more TH17. The third study confirmed the connection with salt using both mouse cells and human cells.
While mice with multiple sclerosis (an autoimmune disease) worsen on a high-salt diet, it is not clear that salt in the diet is related to TH17 production. It is also not clear that slowing TH17 production is the answer to autoimmune diseases since autoimmunity differs across patients and disorders. However, in any event, low-salt diets are recommended for general health concerns, such as blood pressure.
Research has previously shown a link between stress, inflammation, and mood diorders. Anti-inflammatory treatments are now being explored for depression. In an abstract presented at the 2013 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, Nadia Alvi et al. reported that the commonly used anti-inflammatory COX-2 inhibitor celecoxib (Celebrex) showed better antidepressant effects than placebo when added to the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant escitalopram (Lexapro) in an 8-week study.
While this research has not yet been peer-reviewed, it can be found in the 2013 convention supplement (9S) to the journal Biological Psychiatry as abstract #661.
Editor’s Note: These data are consistent with an emerging literature that shows there are increases in signs of inflammation in both unipolar and bipolar depression. It remains to be determined whether those patients whose blood shows markers of inflammation (such as increases in C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukins 1 and 6, and TNF-alpha) are more likely to respond to anti-inflammatory treatment than patients in general.
At the 2013 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, researcher Barbara Gracious presented evidence that increased levels of high sensitivity c-reactive protein (hsCRP), a marker of inflammation, were associated with an increased risk for developing a full-blown mood episode in 71 youth (average age 13.8) participating in a study called Longitudinal Assessment of Manic Symptoms (LAMS-2). The children were selected for the study because they had manic symptoms that were not severe enough to meet criteria for a diagnosis of bipolar I or II disorder. This research has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but the abstract can be found in first 2013 supplement of the journal Bipolar Disorders (page 67).
CRP levels are also known to predict cardiovascular disease and Type II diabetes.
Levels of 25-OH vitamin D, TNF?, and IL-6 did not predict a later mood disorder.
Editor’s Note: These data suggest the importance of assessing CRP and other markers in youth who are either prodromal (having early symptoms of a mood disorder) or at high risk because of a family history of a mood disorder.
The next step for clinical research would be to determine what treatment might decrease CRP and whether it would also prevent the development of mood episodes.