Lithium is known for protecting neurons by inducing neurotrophic factors and inhibiting cell death factors. In a new study, other mood-stabilizing drugs had similar neuroprotective and neurotrophic effects on cultured neurons from the hippocampus.
At the 2014 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, CH Lee et al. presented evidence that lithium, carbamazepine, valproic acid, and lamotrigine all increase the outgrowth of dendrites from these cultured neurons. Therapeutic levels of these drugs increased the production of proteins like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), postsynaptic density protein-95 (PSD-95), neurolignin 1 (NLG 1), beta-neurexin, and synaptophysin. However, so far only lithium has been shown to increase the volume of the human hippocampus as measured with MRI.
Psychiatrists most commonly prescribe antidepressants for bipolar depression, but mounting evidence shows that the traditional antidepressants that are effective in unipolar depression are not effective in bipolar disorder. At the 2013 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, researcher Jessica Lynn Warner reported that among 377 patients with Bipolar I Disorder who were discharged from a hospital, those who were prescribed an antidepressant at discharge were just as likely to be remitted for a new depression than those not given an antidepressant.
The average time to readmission also did not differ across the two groups and was 205 +/- 152 days. Those patients prescribed the serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) drug venlafaxine (Effexor) were three times more likely to be readmitted than those not prescribed antidepressants.
These naturalistic data (generated from observations of what doctors normally do and information in the hospital’s clinical notes) resemble those from controlled studies. In the most recent meta-analysis of antidepressants in the treatment of bipolar depression (by researchers Sidor and MacQueen), there appeared to be no benefit to adding antidepressants to ongoing treatment with a mood stabilizer over adding placebo. Randomized studies by this editor Post et al. and Vieta et al. have shown that venlafaxine is more likely to bring about switches into mania than other types of antidepressants such as bupropion or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
In addition, a naturalistic study published by this editor Post et al. in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2012 showed that the number of times antidepressants were prescribed prior to a patient’s entrance into a treatment network (the Bipolar Collaborative Network) at an average age of 40 was related to their failure to achieve a good response or a remission for a duration of at least six months during prospective treatment.
Editor’s Note: Antidepressants are still the most widely used treatments for bipolar depression, and their popularity over more effective treatments (mood stabilizers and some atypical antipsychotics) probably contributes to the fact that patients with bipolar disorder receiving typical treatment in their communities spend three times as much time in depressions than in manic episodes. Using other treatments first before an antidepressant would appear to do more to prevent bipolar depression. These treatments include mood stabilizers (lithium, lamotrigine, carbamazepine, and valproate); the atypical antipsychotics that are FDA-approved for monotherapy in bipolar depression, lurasidone (Latuda) and quetiapine (Seroquel); and the combination of olanzapine and fluoxetine that goes by the trade name Symbiax.
Evidence from several sources suggests that the SNRI venlafaxine may be a risk factor for switches into mania and lead to re-hospitalizations. Other data suggest that in general, in bipolar depression, augmentation treated with antidepressants should be avoided in several cases: in childhood-onset bipolar depression, in mixed states, and in those with a history of rapid cycling (4 or more episodes per year).
In a plenary lecture at the Collegium Internationale Neuro-Psychopharmacologicum (CINP) in Istanbul in 2012, Pasco Rakic, professor of neuroanatomy at Yale University, may have debunked a myth of modern medicine, one that we have cited in many previous BNNs. Despite what has been written by famous neuroscientists and published in the most prestigious journals, including Science, Cell, and PNAS, based on data in rodents, Rakic presented evidence that neurogenesis does not occur to any substantial extent in adult primates.
Two decades ago, data in rodents and other species clearly indicated that neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons, occurred in adult animals, especially in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. Thousands of papers were written on the subject, and neurogenesis was understood to be possible in adult humans as well. It was even suggested based on data in rodents that the mechanism of action of antidepressants was dependent on neurogenesis. However, Rakic argues that most of the research on neurogenesis was based on faulty data.
Rakic found that while rats do have neurogenesis into adolescence, it diminishes greatly in older adult animals. In primates, neurogenesis in the cortex ends before birth. In the primate dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, there is some postnatal neurogenesis, but it rapidly drops toward zero in the first months of life. Rakic concludes: “We are as old as our neurons…or slightly younger.”
Why should primates have permanent stores of neurons when rodents and other lower animal species get new ones further into their lifespan? Rakic postulates that for primates, neurons must hold experience-dependent memories necessary for the survival of the species, and turning them over would endanger the permanence of this memory. Whatever the reason, it is disappointing to find out that the revolutionary discovery of adult neurogenesis in rodents so widely presumed to also occur in adult primates and humans may not be correct.
This has clinical implications. If we don’t get replacement hippocampal neurons like rats do, it is even more important to protect the billions of neurons that we do have. There are many things that endanger neurons, including inflammation, oxidative stress, high cortisol, poor diet, psychosocial adversity, and episodes of depression and mania. Greater numbers of mood episodes are associated with increasing degrees of cognitive dysfunction because of these many factors. A startling statistic from Denmark by Lars Kessing is that having four or more hospitalizations for depression (either unipolar or bipolar) doubles the risk for a diagnosis of dementia in late life. Thus, it looks like too many episodes hurt the brain.
However, on the positive side, the mood stabilizers (lithium, lamotrigine, valproate, and carbamazepine) and some atypical antipsychotics prevent episodes and increase the neuroprotective factor BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which facilitates synaptogenesis and helps protect neurons. BDNF is produced in selected neurons in the brain and decreases with stress and affective episodes, further endangering neurons. Since many effective treatments both prevent episodes and their associated decreases in BDNF and also directly increase BDNF, they may be having a dual positive benefit. The evidence is best for lithium having neuroprotective effects that can be directly observed in humans. Thus a not unreasonable mantra for patients with recurrent mood disorders is: “Prevent Episodes, Protect the Brain.”
In a poster at the 9th International Conference on Bipolar Disorder (ICBD) held in Pittsburgh in 2011, Rahman and colleagues reported that in patients being treated for bipolar disorder, the addition of atypical antipsychotic aripiprazole to maintenance treatment with lamotrigine was more effective than the addition of placebo to the same maintenance treatment with lamotrigine. Improvements in Young Mania Rating Scores (YMRS) with the combination of aripiprazole plus lamotrigine were significantly greater than that of lamotrigine plus placebo.
Editor’s note: These data add to a growing literature that shows that an atypical antipsychotic added to a mood stabilizer is associated with better prophylactic effects than use of the mood stabilizer alone. Previously, most of the studies of this type of combination used lithium or valproate as the mood stabilizer and, to our knowledge, this is the first to demonstrate that long-term prevention with lamotrigine is enhanced by the addition of an atypical antipsychotic.
Many of the atypical antipsychotics are FDA-approved as adjunctive treatments to mood stabilizers in the long-term treatment of bipolar disorder. The controlled clinical trial data that led to this FDA approval support the practice of many clinicians who prescribe combination treatment rather than monotherapy in order to achieve a more rapid onset of anti-manic stabilization and longer-term maintenance effects. The use of aripiprazole and quetiapine as adjuncts to lithium and valproate is particularly common in bipolar disorder since the same atypical antipsychotics are FDA-approved as adjunctive treatments in unipolar depression, and clinicians are familiar with prescribing them to improve ineffective acute antidepressant treatment.
We have previously written about a study of supra-physiological doses of levothyroxine (a synthetic version of the hormone T4 sold under the brand name Synthroid) performed by Mike Bauer and colleagues in Dresden, Germany and at UCLA. Sixty-three patients were initially treated with an antidepressant and/or a mood stabilizer for one week during a single-blind phase. Then the six-week double-blind phase of the study began, in which patients were given either adjunctive T4 (in the form of levothyroxine ) or placebo, and this was followed by an additional six weeks of open treatment with T4. Patients were started at 100mcg and increased on a weekly basis to 200 and then 300mcg/day.
Overall, T4 had no statistically significant effect that differentiated it from placebo, but among women, there was a significantly greater degree of improvement in the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression scores for those on T4 (-42.4%) than for those on placebo (-16.6%), p= .018.
Editor’s note: This study is the first randomized, placebo-controlled trial of supra-physiological doses of T4. A small series of reports in the literature from several different investigative groups had previously suggested efficacy of this compound in rapid cycling and treatment-resistant patients. Read more
Anil Malhotra from the Zucker Hillside Hospital found that pramipexole (Mirapex), a dopamine D2 and D3 agonist used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, improved measures of processing speed and working memory in euthymic bipolar patients (whose average age was 42) when compared with placebo in an adjunctive clinical trial.
Editor’s Note: Bipolar patients in a euthymic phase have consistently been shown to have some degree of cognitive dysfunction that is typically correlated with the number of prior depressive and/or manic episodes they have experienced. This is one of the first studies to directly target this cognitive dysfunction with a pharmacotherapeutic agent.
Pramipexole may be of additional value among depressed patients, because in two small, placebo-controlled studies, one led by Carlos Zarate at the National Institute of Mental Health and one led by Joseph F. Goldberg in New York, pramipexole has been shown to exert acute antidepressant effects in bipolar patients in the depressive phase of the illness. The new data from Malhotra raise the possibility that there could be a two-for-one benefit when pramipexole is used in the depressive phase of bipolar illness—improvement in both depression and cognition.
Other approaches to improving cognition in patients with bipolar disorder
At the 4th Biennial Conference of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders in Sao Paulo, Brazil in March, Jae Seung Chang of South Korea reported that in a year-long naturalistic, open label study of long-term adjunctive lamotrigine therapy in 109 patients with bipolar II depression, depression severity decreased when lamotrigine was added to patients’ regular treatment with mood stabilizers.
Interestingly, in addition to the data on lamotrigine, these investigators also found that having had a higher number of prior episodes was associated with a decreased response to lithium, a finding that has often been reported in the literature. Another finding was that a history that included a serious suicide attempt was associated with a decreased lamotrigine response. Read more
Psychotherapy and psychoeducational approaches, long-term psychopharmacology, and combination therapy all play a role in preventing recurrent mood episodes.
Psychotherapeutic and Psychoeducational Approaches Are Critical
A number of studies presented at the 4th Biennial Conference of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders in Sao Paulo, Brazil in March indicated that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and individual and group psychoeducational approaches enhance both short- and long-term outcomes for patients with bipolar illness. These studies add to an already substantial literature that shows that focused psychotherapies (such as cognitive/behavioral, interpersonal, and social rhythms therapies) and psychoeducation are superior to treatment as usual.
These therapies can provide a variety of approaches to stress management and reduction, and can enhance family and interpersonal communication. Another way these focused psychotherapeutic approaches help patients is by demonstrating the benefits of effective long-term preventive treatment and encouraging its consistent use.
Without consistent prophylactic treatment, patients are at high risk for recurrences and their subsequent psychosocial and neurobiological consequences. Greater number of prior episodes is associated with an increased risk of psychosocial dysfunction, treatment resistance, cognitive dysfunction, medical comorbidities, and even dementia in old age.
After the jump: preventive psychopharmacology and combination therapy. Read more