Dr. Post’s Recommendations For Treating Youth with Bipolar Symptoms

April 14, 2020 · Posted in Current Treatments, Potential Treatments · Comment 


Our Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Robert M. Post, shares his personal recommendations for the treatment of children and adolescents with symptoms of bipolar disorder. Remember: Patients and family members must consult a physician about all information conveyed in the BNN. With the exception of lithium, none of the medications or supplements discussed above have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for use in children under 10. The findings reported here are in many cases preliminary and cannot be taken as recommendations based on the short summaries provided here. All treatment decisions must be made in conjunction with a patient’s treating physician, who is solely responsible for initiating any treatment discussed in the BNN or elsewhere.

In symptomatic and functionally impaired children, medication is almost always necessary. Many treating psychiatrists would start with an atypical antipsychotic, since there is clear evidence of the efficacy of such treatments. The side effects profile should be considered, as there is a considerable difference in the degree of weight gain associated with different atypical antipsychotics. The largest weight gains occur with olanzapine and clozapine, intermediate gains occur with aripiprazole and quetiapine, and the least gains occur with ziprasidone and lurasidone (and the latter has the advantage of being approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of bipolar depression in children who are 10–17 years old). The addition of the diabetes drug metformin to decrease weight gain in people taking atypical antipsychotics is increasingly common.

The addition of an anticonvulsant medication (such as lamotrigine, carbamazepine/oxcarbazepine, or valproate) or the mood stabilizer lithium may be needed, as multiple studies indicate that combination treatment is typically needed in children (as in adults) to achieve a more complete response or remission.

Interestingly, oxcarbazepine was effective in younger but not older children with mania in a previous placebo-controlled study by Karen D. Wagner and colleagues published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2006.

Conversely, in a 2015 article in the journal JAACAP, researcher Robert Findling reported that in a placebo-controlled study of lamotrigine, 13–17-year-olds responded better than 10–12-year-olds.
Lithium treatment deserves consideration in children with classical presentations of bipolar disorder and those who have family members who have responded well to lithium treatment.

Lithium has the benefit of improving the white matter abnormalities seen in the brains of patients with early-onset bipolar disorder. Hafeman and colleagues reported in a 2019 article that children with bipolar disorder who were treated with lithium had better long-term results upon follow up than those treated with atypical antipsychotics or anticonvulsants.

There is much less scientific consensus about other adjunctive treatments for young people with additional bipolar symptoms and comorbidities, but this editor often uses several. Vitamin D3 is often low in children with psychiatric illness, and may improve mood and cognition.

The antioxidant N-acetylcysteine (NAC) helps depression, anxiety, and irritability, and is effective at treating habit-related behaviors such as trichotillomania (compulsive hair-pulling), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and drug use, including specifically reducing marijuana use in adolescents. A typical dose is 500–600 mg capsules, one capsule twice a day for one week, then two capsules in the morning and two in the evening thereafter.

Folate or folic acid may enhance antidepressant effects and those of lithium. In patients who have a particular low-functioning variant of a gene known as MTHFR, L-methylfolate is required instead of folate.

The widely-used supplement acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC) is poorly studied in children, but deserves consideration as a supplemental treatment for patients with histories of childhood adversity. In adults with depression, blood levels of ALC may be low, particularly in those with an early onset of bipolar symptoms and a history of childhood adversity (see a 2018 article by Carla Nasca in the journal PNAS). There is a modicum of evidence that ALC produces antidepressant effects in adults. ALC may also sensitize insulin receptors and normalize blood pressure.

There is increasing evidence of the role of inflammation in depression, mania, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and schizophrenia. Checking for abnormalities in inflammatory markers in the blood (especially Il-6 and CRP) may point the way to appropriate therapy with anti-inflammatory drugs such as minocycline (100 mg twice a day) or celecoxib (200 mg twice a day) in patients who do not respond fully to first-line medications.

Quetiapine Reduced Childhood Mania, Especially in Those with Thicker Frontal Temporal Regions

March 20, 2020 · Posted in Brain Imaging, Current Treatments · Comment 

white matterIn a symposium at the 2019 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researcher Melissa P. Delbello reported that six weeks of treatment with either lithium or quetiapine was effective in childhood mania, but quetiapine had a higher response rate of 71% versus 46% for lithium. Delbello found two types of structural changes on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Some children had thicker frontal temporal regions, while others had thinning in these areas. The first group of patients had a 100% response to quetiapine, but only 53% of the second group responded to quetiapine.

In contrast, other researchers have found lithium superior to quetiapine. Vivian Kafantaris showed that patients who respond well to lithium show improvements in white matter abnormalities. Michael Berk and colleagues found that a year on lithium was superior to quetiapine on all measures including cognition and brain imaging in patients having their first episode of mania.

Lithium Effective for Maintenance Treatment of Childhood-Onset Bipolar Disorder

March 10, 2020 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 

little girl with therapist

Evidence has been accumulating that lithium is effective in the treatment of young people with bipolar disorder. In a study by Robert Findling and colleagues published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2018, participants aged 7–17 who responded well to lithium during a 24-week study were then randomized to receive either lithium continuation (17 participants) or placebo (14 participants) for 28 more weeks.

Those who continued lithium treatment were more likely to stay in the study. Participants who discontinued the study mostly reported that they did so due to re-emergence of their mood symptoms (mostly in the placebo group).

Lithium was well-tolerated and was not associated with any more weight gain than placebo. This study adds to the growing literature on the effectiveness and tolerability of lithium both acutely and in maintenance treatment in childhood bipolar disorder.

Lithium Better than Other Mood Stabilizers for Youth with Bipolar Disorder

March 6, 2020 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 

A new study by Danella M. Hafeman and colleagues finds that lithium is superior to other mood stabilizers in young people. The data in this case come from 340 youth aged 7–17 who participated in a study known as Course and Outcome of Bipolar Youth (COBY).

At each visit over an average of 10 years, participants reported medications taken, symptoms they had experienced, etc. during the preceding six-month period. During times that participants had taken lithium (compared to other mood stabilizers) they were older, on fewer antidepressants, and they were less likely to have an anxiety disorder.

Those participants who took lithium had half as many suicide attempts, fewer depressive symptoms, less psychosocial impairment, and less aggression than those who took other mood stabilizers.

The researchers concluded, “Findings are consistent with adult studies, showing that lithium is associated with decreased suicidality, less depression, and better psychosocial functioning. Given the paucity of evidence regarding lithium in children and adolescents, these findings have important clinical implications for the pharmacological management of youth with bipolar disorder.”

Editor’s Note: Lithium should especially be considered in those with a family history of mood disorders, and in particular in those with a family history of good response to lithium. Lithium is under-prescribed in both adults and children and should be given much higher consideration in light of the multiple benefits it provides in addition to mood stabilization. These include maintenance of memory, increases in longevity (perhaps based in its ability to increase the length of telomeres, the bits of protective material at the end of DNA strands that deteriorate with age and illness), and neuroprotection against loss of gray and white matter volume in the brain, which often occurs in mood disorders.

In Mice, Knockout of Circadian CLOCK Genes Resembles Mania

November 4, 2019 · Posted in Theory · Comment 


Colleen McClung reviewed and extended previous findings of hers that knocking out a gene known as CLOCK in mice could reproduce most aspects of bipolar mania, including symptoms such as hyperactivity; decreased sleep; less depression; more impulsivity, risk taking, and novelty seeking; and increased reward-seeking including substances such as cocaine, alcohol, and sucrose. This syndrome in mice can be reversed by giving the mice lithium and valproate.

Knocking out the CLOCK gene produced an increased firing rate and burst firing of dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Localized knockout of the CLOCK gene in the VTA alone also reproduced the increase in dopamine cell firing.

When McClung and colleagues knocked out CLOCK in the medial prefrontal cortex, the normal development of a type of neurons called GABAergic parvalbumin interneurons did not occur in adolescent mice, and in adulthood, certain neural nets did not mature, leading to increases in oxidative stress, mitochondrial and cellular dysfunction, and the behavioral abnormalities that resembled mania. This animal model thus gives insight into how a genetic deficit in circadian rhythm genes in humans could influence the timing of behavioral abnormalities starting in adolescence and lasting through adulthood.

Lithium Reverses Thinning of the Cortex That Occurs in Bipolar Disorder

October 9, 2019 · Posted in Brain Imaging · Comment 

gray matter

In a 2018 article in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, researcher Derrek P. Hibar reported findings from the largest study to date of cortical gray matter thickness. Researchers in the ENIGMA Bipolar Disorder Working Group, which comprises 28 international research groups, contributed brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) from 1837 adults with bipolar disorder and 2582 healthy control participants.

Hibar and colleagues in the working group found that in adults with bipolar disorder, cortical gray matter was thinner in the frontal, temporal, and parietal regions of both brain hemispheres. They also found that bipolar disorder had the strongest effect on three regions in the left hemisphere: the pars opercularis, the fusiform gyrus, and the rostral middle frontal cortex.

Those who had had bipolar disorder longer (after accounting for age at the time of the MRI) had less cortical thickness in the frontal, medial parietal, and occipital regions.

A history of psychosis was associated with reduced surface area.

The researchers reported the effects of various drug treatment types on cortical thickness and surface area. In adults and adolescents, lithium was associated with improvements in cortical thickness, and the researchers hypothesized that lithium’s protective effect on gray matter was responsible for this finding. Antipsychotics were associated with decreased cortical thickness.

In people taking anticonvulsant treatments, the thinnest parts of the cortex were the areas responsibly for visual processing. Visual deficits are sometimes reported in people taking anticonvulsive treatments.

Small Percentage of Patients Do Not Re-Respond After Stopping Lithium

July 29, 2019 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 

man taking a pillResearcher Ralph Kupka reviewed the literature on the small subgroup of patients who do well on long-term lithium treatment, stop taking the drug, suffer a relapse, and then fail to re-respond as well as they had (or, in some cases, at all) once they begin taking lithium again. These observations are supported by small case series, and appear to occur in approximately 10 to 15% of patients who stop taking lithium. Slowly tapering off lithium treatment did not seem to influence whether or not patients would re-respond to lithium later, while there was some indication that more time off lithium could lower the likelihood of a good re-response.

Earlier data from researcher Trisha Suppes suggested that slowly tapering off lithium treatment (over about two weeks) is superior to tapering rapidly (over a few days), and a slow taper reduced the rate of relapse. Kupka added that he would taper lithium even more slowly (over a period of one to two months) so that early signs of relapse could more readily be observed.

Optimum Lithium Levels

July 26, 2019 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 

doctor with teen boy

At the 2019 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, researcher Willem Nolen discussed optimal lithium levels to prevent episodes of bipolar disorder. Based on the limited number of controlled trials that have examined this issue and a survey of experts in the field, Nolen concluded that the standard dosing target to prevent bipolar episodes would be a blood concentration of 0.6 to 0.8 mEq/liter. This concentration could be dropped to 0.4 to 0.6 mEq/liter for patients who responded well to a higher dosage but needed to reduce side effects, and the concentration could be increased to 0.8 to 1.0 mEq/liter for patients who tolerated lithium treatment but showed an inadequate response.

There was no consensus as to optimal blood concentrations of lithium to prevent bipolar episodes in children and adolescents, but some researchers endorsed the same standard recommended for adults. For elderly patients, the majority of researchers recommended a slightly lower concentration of 0.4 to 0.6 mEq/liter, with the option to increase to a maximum of 0.8 mEq/liter in those under age 80 and 0.7 mEq/liter in those over age 80.

Lithium Reverses Some White Matter Abnormalities in Youth with Bipolar Disorder

July 23, 2019 · Posted in Brain Imaging, Current Treatments · Comment 

white matterMultiple groups of researchers have reported the presence of white matter tract abnormalities in patients with bipolar disorder. Some of these abnormalities correlate with the degree of cognitive dysfunction in these patients. These white matter tract abnormalities, which are measured with diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), are widespread and can appear as early as childhood in people with bipolar disorder. Researcher Vivian Kafantaris mentioned at the 2019 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders that lithium treatment in children and adolescents normalizes these alterations, as described in an article she and her colleagues published in the journal Bipolar Disorders in 2017.

Editor’s Note: This is another reason to consider the use of lithium in children with bipolar disorder. Lithium treatment may help normalize some of the earliest signs of neuropathology in the illness.

Lithium FDA-Approved for Bipolar Disorder in Children 7–17

July 19, 2019 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 

lithiumIn April 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration approved lithium for both the acute treatment of mania and for ongoing maintenance treatment of bipolar disorder in children and adolescents aged 7 to 17. Combined analysis of several studies indicates that lithium is effective and well-tolerated in both children and adolescents with bipolar disorder, both for acute treatment and to prevent bipolar episodes.

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