In a 2017 article in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, researcher Paul E. Croarkin and colleagues describe findings from their study of genetic risk factors for early-onset bipolar disorder. The researchers focused on single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are variations in a single base pair of a DNA sequence. SNPs are normal variations or copying errors that occur when DNA is replicated. Croarkin and colleagues tracked 8 SNPs that had been linked to bipolar disorder in previous studies. They examined 69 patients from a study of early-onset mania, 732 adult patients with bipolar disorder (including 192 with early-onset illness), and 776 healthy controls. The researchers compared patients with early-onset illness to controls, and also looked for connections between specific SNPs and early-onset illness.
The SNPs analyzed in the study map to three genes that have repeatedly been associated with the risk for bipolar disorder in other studies. These include CACNA1C (one of several genes that create calcium channels), ANK3, and ODZ4. Croarkin and colleagues determined that the presence of these SNPs, particularly the ones that involved the CACNA1C gene, were associated with early-onset bipolar disorder.
Editor’s Note: These findings may lead to better treatment for early-onset bipolar disorder. The CACNA1C calcium influx gene that has repeatedly been connected to bipolar illness can be blocked by the calcium channel blocker nimodipine. Nimodipine has lithium-like effects in mania and depression in adults. One case report by Pablo A. Davanzo in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology described success using nimodipine and the thyroid medication levothyroxine to treat a 13-year-old boy with very rapid cycling bipolar disorder that had previously failed to respond to multiple medications.
Nimodipine deserves further study in children showing symptoms of bipolar disorder. The company Genomind provides testing for the CACNA1C gene. We hope it will soon be determined whether the presence of this SNP predicts a good response to nimodipine.
Being able to predict who will get bipolar disorder is a long way off. However, there are some clear risk factors. Young people from families that have had several generations of bipolar disorder or related disorders are at increased risk for bipolar disorder. This risk increases for children who experience adversity in childhood, such as abuse or neglect. The presence of early mild symptoms of mania, depression, or disruptive behavior further increase this risk.
For doctors, a patient’s clinical history of these three types of risk factors can help identify whether they are at increased risk of developing bipolar disorder. Patients with several risk factors should be observed closely and treated with psychotherapy or medication as needed.
Parents of children between the ages of 2 and 12 who have shown some signs of mood or behavioral symptoms are encouraged to join our Child Network. We provide a secure online platform where parents record their children’s symptoms of anxiety, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional behavior, and mania on a weekly basis. Symptoms are charted over time in a graphical depiction that can be shared with the child’s doctor. For more information, see page 11 of this issue. To join, visit our website bipolarnews.org and click on the tab for the Child Network.
A 2016 article by researcher Petra J. Havinga and colleagues in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry suggests that offspring of a parent with a mood or anxiety disorder are at higher risk for these disorders than offspring from non-ill parents. Havinga and colleagues studied 523 offspring of parents with one of these disorders. Among these offspring, 38.0% had had a mood or anxiety disorder by age 20, and 64.7% had had such a disorder by age 35. (Rates of these disorders in the general population are closer to 10%.)
The risk of offspring developing one of these disorders was even higher when both parents had a history of a mood or anxiety disorder, when a parent had an early onset of one of these illnesses, and when the offspring was female. The good news is that balanced family functioning had a protective effect, reducing the likelihood that the offspring would develop a mood or anxiety disorder.
Researcher David Axelson reported in a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry that approximately 74% of the offspring of a parent with bipolar disorder went on to have a major psychiatric diagnosis over 6.7 years of followup. Similarly, researcher Myrna Weissman and colleagues reported in 2006 that the same high incidence of psychiatric diagnoses was true of the offspring of a parent with unipolar depression over 20 years of followup.
Editor’s Note: It is important to be vigilant for mood or behavioral disorders that may emerge in the offspring of a parent with a mood or anxiety disorder. Children at high risk should maintain a healthy diet and good sleep hygiene, exercise regularly, and perhaps try practicing mindfulness and meditation, as recommended by researcher Jim Hudziak. Family-focused therapy (developed by researcher David Miklowitz) can help when early symptoms appear in the offspring of a parent with bipolar disorder.
Another option is joining our Child Network, a secure online program that allows parents to track their children’s symptoms of anxiety, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional behavior, and mania. This may facilitate earlier recognition and treatment of dysfunctional symptoms, which can be treated with psychotherapy and medication.
Researchers are looking for better ways of predicting whether children at risk for bipolar disorder will go on to develop the illness. A 2015 study by David Axelson and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry reported that in the offspring of parents with bipolar disorder, diagnoses of sub-threshold mania, depression, and disruptive behavior disorders were associated with subsequent diagnosis of full-blown Bipolar I or Bipolar II disorders six to seven years later.
More recently, in an article by Danella M. Hafeman and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the same group of investigators has examined how symptoms (rather than categorical diagnoses, as in the earlier study) predict the development of bipolar disorder. In children and adolescents at high risk for bipolar disorder (because they have a parent with the disorder) three types of symptoms were the best predictors of later bipolar disorder: anxiety/depression at the time participants entered the study, unstable mood or irritability both when entering the study and shortly before a bipolar diagnosis, and low-level manic symptoms observed shortly before diagnosis.
The earlier the age at which a parent was diagnosed with a mood disorder, the greater the risk that the offspring would also be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Youth with all four risk factors (anxiety or depression, mood changes, low-level mania, and a parent who was diagnosed with a mood disorder at an early age) had a 49 percent chance of developing bipolar disorder, compared to a 2 percent chance among those without those risk factors.
Childhood onset of bipolar disorder and long delays until first treatment for depression or mania are both significant predictors of a poor outcome in adulthood compared to adult onsets and shorter delays to treatment. Read more
In boys, a decrease in the thickness of the cortex is a part of normal maturation. However, according to a recent study, this process is sped up in boys at high risk for schizophrenia when they use marijuana before the age of 16.
Early use of marijuana has been linked to subsequent development of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia begins about 5 years earlier in males than in females, and the male brain goes through more structural changes during adolescence.
A 2015 article by Tomáš Paus in the journal JAMA Psychiatry incorporated data from three studies, which took place in parts of Canada and England and eight European cities. The studies all included magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the participants, a measure of their genetic risk of developing schizophrenia, and questions about their past marijuana use. In boys at high risk for schizophrenia based on their genetic profile, cortical thickness dropped more among the ones who used high amounts of marijuana before the age of 16 compared to those who did not.
Paus hypothesizes that the development of schizophrenia is a “two-hit process.” People who develop schizophrenia may have an early risk factor, such as their genetic profile or a problem that occurs in utero, and a later stressor such as drug use in adolescence.
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.
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.
An epigenetic finding from a study of twins may shed light on why some people develop bipolar disorder and others don’t.
Epigenetics refers to changes in genes that do not affect the inherited sequence of DNA, but affect how easily the DNA is transcribed to produce proteins. Environmental events such as stress or exposure to chemicals can bring about epigenetic changes by adding or subtracting acetyl or methyl groups from strands of DNA or the histones around which it is wound. In this way twins’ DNA can differ—not in its sequence but in its physical structure and the ease with which it produces proteins.
At the 2014 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, researcher J. Ayers Ringlera et al. presented their study of pairs of twins in which one twin had bipolar disorder and the other didn’t. The ill twins showed more methylation of SLC1A2, the gene for the excitatory amino acid transporter 2 (EAAT2), which clears the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate from the synapse of neurons. Methylation of the gene suppresses the amount of transporter expressed, so less glutamate gets cleared.
Editor’s Note: Glutamate abnormalities play a role in bipolar disorder. This finding by Ringlera et al. may explain why the drug N-acetylcysteine (NAC) works in bipolar disorder—NAC increases the number of glial glutamate transporters and helps clear excess glutamate from the synapse.