N-acetylcysteine (NAC), an antioxidant available without a prescription in health food stores, has shown remarkable effectiveness when added to regular treatments for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and the substance abuse that often accompanies these illnesses.
A 2008 article by Michael Berk and colleagues in the journal Biological Psychiatry reported that compared to placebo, 2 grams/day of NAC reduced both positive symptoms of schizophrenia (hallucinations, delusions) and negative symptoms (social withdrawal, difficulty planning and problem-solving). A 2013 study by Mehdi Farokhnia found that 2 grams/day of NAC improved negative symptoms in 42 patients with schizophrenia. Two other studies found that NAC improved deficits in auditory sensory processing in people with schizophrenia.
NAC also improves symptoms of bipolar disorder. A 2008 study by Berk and a 2011 study by Pedro Vieira da Silva Magalhães showed that NAC improved bipolar depression, and a small 2013 study by Magalhães showed that it improved mania in 15 patients. After 24 weeks, 60% of those who took NAC were in remission, compared to 15% of those taking placebo.
NAC is also effective at reducing habitual behaviors such as substance abuse, which is common in patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Studies have shown that NAC can reduce patients’ use of marijuana, cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine. It is relatively safe with minimal side effects, and fights oxidative stress, which is also common in severe mental illness.
NAC comes in 500mg or 600mg capsules. Dosing typically begins with one capsule twice a day for a week, followed by two tablets twice a day thereafter. As with any recommendations in the BNN, these should not be acted on without guidance from a treating physician.
A 2014 meta-analysis of the literature to date on mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) for substance use disorders suggests that these interventions can reduce consumption of alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana, cigarettes, and opiates, compared to several types of controls. The research by Alberto Chiesa and Alessandro Serretti, published in the journal Substance Use and Misuse, includes 24 studies published before 2012. The authors also found some evidence that MBIs are associated with reduced craving and increased mindfulness. Most of the studies included in the meta-analysis were small, so their generalizability is limited.
A 2014 article by S. Bowen and colleagues in the journal JAMA Psychiatry compared mindfulness-based relapse prevention with standard relapse prevention and treatment as usual for people recovering from substance abuse. Mindfulness-based relapse prevention combines the cognitive behavioral approach of standard relapse prevention with MBIs that have been successful in other studies.
Bowen et al. found that both standard relapse prevention and mindfulness-based relapse prevention lowered the risk of relapse and reduced days of substance use at 6 months, compared to treatment as usual. The standard treatment delayed first drug use, but the mindfulness intervention decreased use at the 12-month mark compared to both standard relapse prevention and treatment as usual.
Depression and bipolar disorder come with a high incidence of substance abuse. It is important to realize that there are now good medicines to treat the addictions as well as the primary mood disorders they accompany. At the 2015 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, encouraged psychiatrists to think of addiction as a “disease of the brain that disrupts the systems that allow people to exert self-control,” saying that this would help reduce stigma both for insurance companies and for the wider public.
Most treatment of substance abuse in bipolar disorder is off-label. Doctors must infer indirect evidence of the possible efficacy of each drug in bipolar disorder from studies in those with only the primary addiction, for example, cocaine abuse without bipolar disorder.
The table at right is a preliminary rating of 1) the strength of the evidence for the efficacy of each drug in the primary addiction and 2) the likely utility of the drug for the treatment of addictions in people with bipolar disorder. For example, the drug baclofen has excellent evidence of efficacy in cocaine addiction, but gets a D for utility in bipolar disorder because baclofen can exacerbate depression.
This list is provisional, and the subjective grades for each drug are likely to change as more research is collected on these treatments. Consult a doctor if you are seeking treatment for bipolar disorder and/or substance abuse.
Telomeres sit at the end of DNA strands and shorten with each cell replication. Shorter telomeres are associated with aging and an increase in multiple medical and psychiatric disorders. New research draws connections between the production of mitochondrial DNA, telomere length, the experience of childhood adversity, and mental illness.
Researcher Audrey Tyrka and colleagues divided 290 healthy adults into four categories based on whether or not they had experienced adversity in childhood and whether they had been diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The researchers also analyzed the participants’ telomere lengths and the copy number of their mitochondrial DNA. Both stressful events in childhood (such as maltreatment or the loss of a parent) and a history of mental illnesses (depression and anxiety) were associated with shorter telomeres and higher mitochondrial DNA copy numbers, a measure of cellular aging. Substance abuse was associated with higher mitochondrial DNA copy numbers.
Editor’s Note: This research replicates earlier findings that adversity is associated with shortening telomeres. The finding that mitochondrial DNA could play a role in the long-term effects of early life adversity and mental illnesses is new.
At the 2014 meeting of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology, researcher Rieva et al. reported that 60% of bipolar patients with comorbid alcohol abuse have attempted suicide, and 48% of bipolar patients with cocaine abuse have attempted suicide. Thus, both of these comorbidities deserve specific attention and treatment. Unfortunately there are currently no Federal Drug Administration–approved drugs for bipolar patients with these comorbidities. The most promising treatments, based on data in patients with primary addictions, are the nutritional supplement N-acetylcysteine and topiramate, which have both performed better than placebo in studies of alcohol and cocaine abuse disorders.
Colleen Hanlon, a researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina, has found that biofeedback can be used to decrease cocaine craving in people with substance abuse problems. In her research, patients were given real time feedback from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and learned to decrease the activation of a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate when exposed to cocaine cues (reminders of their desire for cocaine). They were able to decrease drug craving as well as heart rate and skin conduction, which often accompany it.
In adults with bipolar disorder, adversity in childhood has been associated with an earlier onset of bipolar disorder compared to those who did not experience some form of adversity such as verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, loss of a parent, abandonment, or neglect. At the 2013 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, Nancy Low et al. reported that the number of these stressful life events a child experienced was associated with the number of their anxiety symptoms, psychiatric disorders, and lifetime substance abuse. Having experienced 3 or more adversities was associated with a 3.5-fold increased risk for developing a mood disorder and a 3-fold increase in anxiety disorders and alcohol or drug abuse.
While the study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, the abstract (#194) may be found in the meeting supplement, Volume 73, Number 9S of the journal Biological Psychiatry.
Editor’s Note: Low’s study is the first to report that childhood adversity is a risk factor for the onset of bipolar disorder in the general population.
Given the increasing evidence for the persistence of epigenetic marks on DNA and histones (which can’t change the sequence of genes but can change their structure) in those who have experienced such stressors in childhood, this could provide a mechanism for the long-term vulnerability of these children to the development of mood disorders and a variety of physical illnesses.
Synthetic marijuana, otherwise known as spice, skank, or K2, is not only vastly more potent than the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in marijuana plants, but it also lacks cannabidiol (CBD), the calming, antipsychotic substance also present in the plants. This makes spice much more likely to induce major psychiatric effects.
New evidence links use of spice during pregnancy to a tragic birth defect, anencephaly, or absence of the cerebral cortex. It can also lead to the later development of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, memory impairment, depression, and aggression.
Effects of THC on gestation may occur as early as two weeks after conception, meaning by the time a woman realizes she is pregnant, the fetus may have been harmed by exposure to the drug.
Other new finding associate use of spice with acute coronary syndrome and the kind of acute kidney injury that can lead to the organ shutting down.
Editor’s Note: It has now been found that synthetic marijuana, or spice, can lead to psychosis, delirium, acute coronary syndrome (heart attack) in young people, and now kidney dysfunction, in addition to causing birth defects if used by pregnant women. Not only is spice made up of more potent THC without the calming effects of CBD, but it is often laced with unknown contaminants, which are likely the cause of the heart and kidney damage.
Smoking regular marijuana is bad enough—it doubles the risk of psychosis and may precipitate the onset of schizophrenia. It may also cause long-lasting effects on cognitive function. Since many states are legalizing marijuana, it is important to know the risks. In any case the risks are much more serious with the synthetic product, and synthetic marijuana should be avoided at all costs.
Physical punishment of children has long been a controversial subject. A 2012 article by Afifi et al. in the journal Pediatrics suggests that having experienced harsh physical punishment during childhood is associated with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and dependence, and personality disorders in adulthood.
In this study harsh physical punishment included pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, or hitting. Participants who had experienced more severe maltreatment in childhood (including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, and exposure to violence between intimate partners) were excluded from the study, and the results were adjusted for sociodemographic variables and family history of dysfunction, suggesting that physical punishment was the mediator of these effects.
Substance Use Among Canadian Adolescents with Bipolar Disorder: The Critical Need for Intervention and Prevention
At the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), Antoinette Scavone presented a poster on correlates of substance use disorders among Canadian adolescents with bipolar disorder. Participants were 62 adolescents aged 14 to 19 with bipolar disorder. Twenty-three participants (37.1%) had a substance abuse disorder.
Those with a comorbid substance use disorder were more likely to have a comorbid panic disorder or an oppositional defiant disorder. They also had higher rates of police contact or arrest, were more likely to have been involved in assault, and were more impulsive. In addition they had experienced more stressful life events.
Editor’s Note: These data from a Canadian sample replicate previous findings in the US and again indicate the critical importance of preventing the onset of substance abuse in adolescents at especially high risk because of their bipolar disorder.