Lithium Superior to Other Mood Stabilizers in a Longitudinal Study of Bipolar Youth

February 1, 2019 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 

teenagers

At a late-2018 scientific meeting, researcher Danella Hafeman and colleagues reported some results of the Course and Outcome of Bipolar Youth (COBY) study. The study includes long-term follow up of 413 youth with bipolar disorder, who ranged in age from 7 to 17 years old. Hafeman and colleagues reported that taking lithium more than 75% of the time was linked to fewer suicide attempts, fewer depressive symptoms, and fewer psychosocial difficulties than taking another mood stabilizer (such as an atypical antipsychotic, lamotrigine, or valproic acid) more than 75% of the time after adjusting for demographic variables.

Despite the limitations of observational studies such as this one, the authors concluded, “Our findings are consistent with studies in adult populations, showing that lithium (compared to other mood stabilizers) 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: These observations are consistent with several other studies. Researcher Barbara Geller and colleagues observed in eight years of follow up of children diagnosed with bipolar disorder that those who were treated with lithium spent more time in remission than those who took other medicines. A randomized controlled study by researcher Robert Findling and colleagues documented that maintenance lithium treatment was more effective than placebo at preventing bipolar episodes. Together, these data suggest that lithium should be used more often in the long-term treatment of children with bipolar disorder.

Way ahead of his time in about 1993, the renowned child psychiatrist Dennis Cantwell said something like this: “If I had an adolescent child with a first manic episode, I would have him stay on lithium for the rest of his life.” He seems to have been prescient, as evidence of the many benefits of lithium over other alternatives in the treatment of both children and adults has been accumulating.

An open-access review article this editor (Robert M. Post) published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology in 2017, “The New News about Lithium: An Underutilized Treatment in the United States,” argues that lithium’s many benefits have been underestimated, while its side effects have been overestimated. It is my view that it would be beneficial if lithium were more often included in the treatment regimen of adults as well as children and adolescents with bipolar disorder.

Lithium has an astounding range of effectiveness. It prevents recurrent depressions and suicide (even in those with unipolar depression), increases hippocampal and cortical volume, protects memory, and increases the length of telomeres (the end portions of chromosomes that protect them as they replicate). In multiple animal models of neurological diseases, it has also been found to be neuroprotective and to reduce the size of brain lesions.

Risk of Suicide in People with Bipolar Disorder: Lowest with Lithium, Highest with Antidepressants

January 7, 2019 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 

man in sunshine

Researcher Markku Lähteenvuo and colleagues reported in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in early 2018 that long-acting injectable antipsychotics and lithium were best at preventing re-hospitalization in 18,018 bipolar patients in Finland who received an average of more than 7 years of follow up. Lähteenvuo and colleagues have now gone on to analyze suicide data from the same cohort of patients with bipolar disorder, and report that those taking lithium had the lowest rate of suicide, while those taking valproate had the next lowest suicide rate. Those patients with bipolar disorder who were treated with antidepressants had the greatest suicide rate. The suicide rate was particularly high for those once-hospitalized patients taking the MAO inhibitor antidepressant meclobemide, which is not approved for use in the US. Increased rates of suicide were also seen with use of sedatives and benzodiazepines.

Editor’s Note: Evidence continues to mount that lithium should be the definitive first line therapy in bipolar disorder for a multitude of reasons (as this editor Robert M. Post reviewed in an open-access article in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology in 2017). Still, lithium is not often prescribed for people with bipolar disorder in the US, and this does not seem to be in these patients’ best interests.

Use of antidepressants in bipolar disorder has remained controversial, but it is common in clinical practice despite a lack of evidence that it is effective, and the presence of some evidence that it is actually harmful. Antidepressant use in a person with bipolar disorder may cause switching into mania, cycle acceleration, dysphoria induction, and even suicide.

Clinicians should take these data seriously and overcome the impulse (leftover from treating unipolar depression) to use unimodal antidepressants as first line or adjunctive therapy for bipolar depression. Antidepressants are only effective in the long term in about 15% of patients with bipolar depression, and now it appears antidepressant use also carries an additional risk of suicide.

Single Dose of Ketamine Reduces Suicidal Ideation

September 18, 2018 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 

Nurse Giving Patient Injection

A systematic review and meta-analysis by Samuel T. Wilkinson and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry analyzed individual patient data from 10 studies in which a single intravenous dose of ketamine was given to patients with suicidal ideation. The review included data from a total of 167 participants.

Wilkinson and colleagues found that ketamine reduced suicidal ideation within 24 hours, and these effects lasted for up to seven days. Mood also improved, but the reduction in suicidal ideation was independent of the degree of improvement in depression.

Among the participants, 54.9% were free of suicidal ideation at 24 hours after the infusion, 60.0% were free of suicidal ideation one week after the infusion, and 61.1% were free of suicidal ideation at two weeks.

Editor’s Note: The authors report that there is much to clarify about ketamine treatment before it can be used clinically to treat patients at risk for suicide. However, ketamine’s powerful and rapid effects offer an interesting alternative to other slow-acting treatment options, and could be an ideal acute treatment for patients arriving in an emergency room because of high suicide risk. A ketamine injection could be especially useful  for those who are not admitted to the hospital, as it could produce anti-suicidal effects that could help carry a patient over until their next psychiatric appointment.

Lithium Treatment Lowers Suicide Rate in People with Bipolar Disorder

February 23, 2018 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 

lithium

A large study that made use of a Swedish health database has shown that lithium reduces suicide rates in bipolar disorder. The study by researcher Jie Song and colleagues was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2017.

The study included eight years of data from 51,535 people with bipolar disorder. During that time, there were 10,648 suicide-related events recorded, such as suicide attempts or completed suicides. The researchers compared suicide rates when patients were taking lithium to rates when they were off the drug, and found that lithium reduced attempted or completed suicide by 14%. Song and colleagues also looked at suicide rates for people taking valproate, and found that these were no better than when patients were off valproate, implying that treatment alone is not enough to reduce the suicide rate and the benefit is specific to lithium use.

Song and colleagues estimate that 12% of the suicide-related events among the patients included in the study might have been avoided if the patients had taken lithium for the entire study period. While there are other clinical considerations to make when selecting an appropriate treatment for a given patient, the researchers suggest that lithium treatment should be considered for patients with bipolar disorder who have expressed suicidal intentions or who are otherwise at risk for suicide.

Brain Scans Differentiate Suicidal from Non-Suicidal Patients with Bipolar Disorder

September 29, 2017 · Posted in Brain Imaging · Comment 

brainPeople with bipolar disorder are at high risk for suicidal behavior beginning in adolescence and young adulthood. A 2017 study by Jennifer A. Y. Johnston and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry uses several brain-scanning techniques to identify neurobiological features associated with suicidal behavior in people with bipolar disorder compared to people with bipolar disorder who have never attempted suicide. Clarifying which neural systems are involved in suicidal behavior may allow for better prevention efforts.

The study included 26 participants who had attempted suicide and 42 who had not. Johnston and colleagues used structural, diffusion tensor, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to identify differences in the brains of attempters and non-attempters.

Compared to those who had never attempted suicide, those who had exhibited reductions in gray matter volume in the orbitofrontal cortex, hippocampus, and cerebellum. They also had reduced white matter integrity in the uncinate fasciculus, ventral frontal, and right cerebellum regions. In addition, attempters had reduced functional connectivity between the amygdala and the left ventral and right rostral prefrontal cortex. Better right rostral prefrontal connectivity was associated with less suicidal ideation, while better connectivity of the left ventral prefrontal area was linked to less lethal suicide attempts.

Brain Inflammation Found in Autopsy Studies of Teen and Adult Suicides

December 14, 2016 · Posted in Brain Imaging, Neurobiology · Comment 

brain inflammation

Suicide and depression have both been linked to elevated levels of inflammatory cytokines in the blood and cerebrospinal fluid. A recent study finds that these inflammatory markers are also elevated in the brains of teens and depressed adults who died from suicide.

In autopsy studies, researcher Ghanshyam N. Pandey measured levels of the inflammatory cytokines interleukin-1beta, interleukin 6, and TNF-alpha in the brains of teen suicide victims, and compared these to the brains of teens who died from other causes. Pandey also measured levels of interleukin-1beta, interleukin 6, interleukin 8, interleukin 10, interleukin 13, and TNF-alpha in the prefrontal cortex of depressed adult suicide victims and compared them to levels in adults who died of other causes.

There were abnormalities in the inflammatory markers in the brains of those who died from suicide compared to their matched controls. The suicide victims had higher levels of interleukin-1beta, interleukin 6, and TNF-alpha than the controls. Among the adults, levels of the anti-inflammatory cytokine interleukin 10 were low in the suicide victims while levels of Toll-like receptors (TLR3 and TLR4), which are involved in immune mechanisms, were high.

Brain inflammation has also been observed in positron emission tomography (PET) scans of depressed patients, where signs of microglial activation can be observed. Elevated inflammatory cytokines are also found in the blood of some people with bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia.

Pandey presented this research at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry.

Very Low Doses of Opioid Buprenorphine May Reduce Suicidal Ideation

May 5, 2016 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 

reduces suicidal ideation

There is no perfect treatment to reduce the risk of suicide in someone who is considering it. Antidepressants can reduce suicidal ideation, but they take several weeks to start working. Intravenous ketamine is used at higher doses as an anesthetic, but in low doses works quickly to reduce suicidal thoughts. However, it requires repeated infusions to keep working. Researchers led by Yoram Yovell are exploring another option: ultra-low doses of the opioid buprenorphine.

In a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2015, Yovell and colleagues compared low-dose buprenorphine to placebo in 62 patients with no history of substance abuse who had been contemplating suicide for a week or more. Many had attempted suicide before, and more than half met the criteria for borderline personality disorder.

Buprenorphine was administered under the tongue, in doses of 0.1 mg once or twice a day. The researchers used these low doses to minimize the side effects of a drug that could potentially be addictive. Those randomized to receive buprenorphine saw greater reductions in suicidal ideation compared to those who received placebo, both after two weeks and after four weeks.

Use of antidepressants did not affect the likelihood that patients would respond to buprenorphine. The researchers suggest that buprenorphine specifically treats suicidal thoughts, rather than improving depression in general.

Patients with borderline personality disorder, who are often unresponsive to medication, also saw improvement in suicidal ideation after taking buprenorphine, suggesting that the opioid treated a particular symptom of their disorder—sensitivity to feelings of separation from the people with whom they are close.

Patients did not experience withdrawal when they discontinued buprenorphine. Side effects included fatigue, nausea, dry mouth, and constipation. Patients who started out taking 0.2 mg per day were much more likely to drop out than those who started at 0.1 mg per day.

There is another reason the researchers used very low doses. A potential benefit to ultra-low–dose buprenorphine is that even a week’s supply of the drug would not produce a dangerous overdose, so patients could potentially be prescribed a week’s worth of medication to take at home instead of in an inpatient setting.

Buprenorphine is not recommended for patients with a history of substance abuse. The study only explored short-term use of the drug, and replication studies are needed to clarify its effects.

Childhood Maltreatment Associated with Suicide Attempts

December 30, 2015 · Posted in Risk Factors · Comment 

child abuse

A history of childhood maltreatment increases the risk that a person will attempt suicide. Different types of maltreatment, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect, often overlap. In a 2015 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, researcher Nicolas Hoertel and colleagues used data from an epidemiological survey of 34,653 Americans to clarify the mechanism by which maltreatment is linked to suicide risk.

Hoertel and colleagues found that childhood maltreatment in general was associated with an increased risk of attempting suicide and an earlier age at first suicide attempt. The analysis controlled for demographic characteristics and psychiatric diagnoses. Most of the risk came from effects that were shared across all the types of maltreatment. However, sexual abuse directly conferred an additional risk of suicide attempt.

In an earlier study of 648 outpatients with bipolar disorder by this editor Robert Post and colleagues (led by Gabriele Leverich), 34% had a history of suicide attempts, and these participants had a higher incidence of traumatic stressors in childhood and more stresses at illness onset than those without a history of suicide attempts. A history of sexual abuse in childhood was also linked to an increased risk of a serious suicide attempt in the earlier study, which appeared in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2003.

Link Between Childhood Trauma and Difficult Course of Bipolar Disorder Clarified

November 9, 2015 · Posted in Genetics, Risk Factors · Comment 

Trauma in childhood linked to course of bipolar disorder

A collaboration between Norwegian and French researchers led by Bruno Etain has clarified the pathway by which childhood trauma is linked to worse outcomes among people with bipolar disorder. The researchers, who presented their work in a poster at the 2015 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, replicated earlier findings by this editor (Robert Post) that patients who experienced trauma as a child had a more adverse course of bipolar disorder. Etain and colleagues found a link between childhood trauma and an earlier age of onset of bipolar disorder, rapid cycling, suicide attempts, and cannabis misuse.

The researchers identified more than 550 patients with bipolar disorder, who answered questionnaires about their history of bipolar disorder and childhood trauma. Their DNA was also analyzed, and the researchers found that the effect of childhood trauma on age of onset was mediated by the presence of common genetic variants in proteins related to stress (the serotonin transporter) and immune function (Toll-like receptors). They also found that the traits of mood lability (or moodiness) and impulsivity mediated the effects of trauma on clinical outcomes.

The lasting epigenetic effects of child maltreatment and adversity noted in the above abstract are consistent with a large literature showing more epigenetic effects in these individuals than in controls. While genetics are important, the impact of the environment is also substantial.

Ketamine Temporarily Reduces Suicidal Thoughts

October 19, 2015 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 

ketamine temporarily reduces suicidal thoughts

Intravenous ketamine can bring about rapid improvement in depressive symptoms among people with treatment-resistant depression. Because of its rapid effects, which can appear after only two hours, ketamine is being investigated as a treatment for people with suicidal thoughts.

At the 2015 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, Laili Soleimani and colleagues presented a poster about their recent double blind, randomized, controlled pilot study of ketamine inpatients and outpatients who scored highly on a measure of suicidal ideation. The 24 participants were randomized to receive either a single intravenous infusion of ketamine (0.5mg/kg) or a single infusion of midazolam (0.045 mg/kg), which shares ketamine’s anxiety-reducing effects but does not have antidepressant effects. They reported suicidal thoughts at 24 hours post-infusion, 48 hours, 72 hours, and 7 days. At 48 hours, those who received ketamine reported significantly reduced suicidal ideation compared to those who received midazolam, but this effect was no longer significant at the 72-hour mark.

The findings show that ketamine can briefly reduce suicidal ideation, and that the treatment is safe and tolerable for patients. This pilot study paves the way for further study of ketamine to reduce suicidal thinking in people who are at high risk for suicidal behavior.

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