Evidence from multiple studies has indicated the importance of beginning preventative treatment, particularly with lithium, early in the course of bipolar disorder. A 2016 comprehensive literature review by researcher Katie Joyce and colleagues in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders concluded that psychoeducation and medication are more effective in bipolar disorder when applied in earlier stages of the illness rather than later stages.
Several studies suggest that treatment for bipolar disorder should be started specifically after the first manic episode.
A 2014 study by researcher Lars Kessing and colleagues in the British Journal of Psychiatry examined 4,700 patients treated with lithium in Denmark. Kessing and colleagues found that those who started treatment after one manic episode were less likely to find lithium ineffective than those who started later.
Another study by researcher Michael Berk and colleagues presented at the International Society for Bipolar Disorders found that after a first manic episode, a year of treatment with lithium was much more effective on all measures of outcome, including mania and depression ratings, brain imaging, and neuropsychological functioning, than a year when patients were randomized to quetiapine (Seroquel).
Researcher Lakshmi Yatham and colleagues presented research at the International Society for Bipolar Disorders showing that patients recovered from the neuropsychological deficits associated with a first episode of mania if they were well treated and had no further episodes, while those who had new episodes did not return to their baseline capabilities. This suggests that early treatment that prevents future episodes helps maintain a healthy brain.
Kessing and colleagues previously reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2013 that patients randomized to two years of treatment in an outpatient clinic specializing in mood disorders following a first hospitalization for mania had 40% fewer recurrences of bipolar episodes over the next six years than those who received treatment as usual. These data indicate that early treatment, which may include psychotherapy, medications, mood charting (i.e. keeping a daily record of symptoms) and illness education, can improve the long-term course of illness. Lithium is often a key component of such treatment.
Editor’s Note: This type of intensive, ongoing treatment is not the norm after a first manic hospitalization in the United States, but it should be. Given the new data on the impact of starting lithium after a first episode of mania, and lithium’s superiority over quetiapine in the year following a first episode, lithium treatment should be standard following a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
In the past, sometimes doctors have recommended waiting until a patient has had multiple episodes of mania before beginning preventative treatment with lithium. This now appears to be a mistake.
Lithium protects against depressive as well as manic recurrences, and there is also evidence that it increases hippocampal and cortical volume, helping prevent cognitive deterioration in those with mild cognitive impairment. Lithium is also the most effective mood stabilizer for preventing suicide, and it increases the length of telomeres (caps on the end of DNA strands), thus preventing a wide range of medical and psychiatric illnesses. Lithium may need to be combined with other drugs to achieve a complete remission, but using it after a first mania is a good place to start.
A Danish working group has released guidelines for prescribing psychotropic drugs to women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. After a comprehensive review of the literature, researchers from several different Danish medical societies reported that sertraline and citalopram are the first choice among selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for depression in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. The working group suggested that women with bipolar disorder who need a mood stabilizer because of frequent relapses could be prescribed lithium, though lithium use is associated with a small risk of cardiac abnormalities in the child. Lamotrigine may also be used, and has not been associated with any congenital abnormalities.
Valproate and carbamazepine are not recommended for use during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Use of valproate among women of child-bearing age should particularly be avoided due to several risks for the potential child. These include spina bifida and other serious congenital problems, but also severe developmental delay and loss of about 9 IQ points. Other possible treatments for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in pregnant and breastfeeding women include olanzapine, risperidone, quetiapine, and clozapine. The data about the safety of these medications are not extensive.
The working group included members of the Danish Psychiatric Society, the Danish Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the Danish Paediatric Society, and the Danish Society of Clinical Pharmacology. The recommendations may be found in an article by E.R. Larsen and colleagues in a 2015 supplement to the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.
Studies have found that when a depressed mother’s symptoms remit, her children are less likely to show psychiatric symptoms. A new study by Myrna M. Weissman and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry randomized 76 mothers to treatment with escitalopram, bupropion, or a combination of the two, and assessed the impact of the mothers’ treatment on their 135 children (aged 7–17).
There were no significant differences in the mothers’ symptoms or remission, but children’s depressive symptoms and functioning improved more if their mothers received (only) escitalopram. Only in that group was a mother’s improvement associated with her children’s improvement.
Mothers in the escitalopram group reported greater improvement in their ability to listen and talk to their children compared to the mothers in other groups, and the children of the mothers in the escitalopram group reported that their mothers were more caring.
Children of mothers with low negative affect improved significantly, while children of mothers with high negative affect only improved if their mothers were in the escitalopram group.
The authors suggest that for a mother’s improvement to help her children’s symptoms, her anxious distress and irritability must be reduced, and these may be better targeted with escitalopram than bupropion.
In 2013 we described a speech given by Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy about the need for parity in care for people with mental illnesses. In late 2013, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a final rule on the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, effectively requiring that health insurance coverage for mental health and substance abuse treatment be comparable to coverage of physical ailments.
The rule was prompted in part by mass shootings that were linked to mental health patients. Sebelius announced the new rule at a press conference with former first lady Rosalynn Carter, who has been a supporter of mental health research for decades.
According to the New York Times, state insurance commissioners will need to enforce the new rule, and more money may be required to fund behavioral health clinics.
This historic milestone may allow patients to get medical care they had previously been unable to afford.
At a recent scientific meeting, researcher Andrew H. Miller presented data on infliximab, an inhibitor of the inflammatory cytokine TNF alpha that is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and is being explored for the treatment of depression. As previously reported in BNN Volume 16, Issue 2 from 2012, the drug was not effective overall among the depressed patients, but in a subgroup of patients with high levels of the inflammatory marker CRP, infliximab was highly effective. Miller emphasized that patients do not fail to respond to treatments; it is doctors who fail, or drugs that fail. He explained that there is tremendous heterogeneity in people’s illnesses, and doctors must get better at sorting out what treatments will work for each patient, striving toward personalized therapeutics.
There are many clinical correlates or predictors of nonresponse to antidepressants used in unipolar depression. These include inflammation, obesity, stress in childhood, anxiety disorder comorbidity, substance abuse comorbidity, and medical comorbidity.
Editor’s Note: How do we doctors target these clinical correlates of illness for better therapeutic effects? We are just starting to learn, and until we identify good markers for predicting illness, the best we can do is carry out carefully sequenced clinical trials of medications and therapies with different mechanisms of action.
Patients can assist their physicians and clinicians by engaging in precise, preferably nightly charting of their mood, functioning, medications, life events, side effects, and other symptoms such as anxiety on a personal calendar. Several of these are available for free download, and there are other longitudinal screening instruments, such as the website and app What’s My M3.
A good personal response to a novel treatment or a poor response to an Federal Drug Administration–approved treatment trumps anything that is written in the research literature. The best way to achieve the best outcome is to engage in excellent monitoring of symptoms and side effects that can guide the next steps in therapeutics.
Among the hundreds of posters, workshops, clinical perspectives, and symposia presented over five days at the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), there were almost no posters or presentations on new approaches to treatment (either with drugs or therapy) for children with bipolar disorder.
As we have repeatedly emphasized in the BNN and in research publications, this deficiency has adverse consequences for the many hundreds of thousands of children and adolescents in the US with unequivocal diagnoses of bipolar disorder. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death in adolescents 13 to 17 years of age in the US. Most of these young people have a mood disorder. Bipolar disorder carries with it not only a substantial risk of suicide, but also the potential for a lifetime of dysfunction, disability, and medical comorbidity if it is inadequately treated.
Please advocate for more treatment research for childhood onset bipolar disorder. A whole generation of children, their parents, and their physicians desperately need more treatment information.
Note: The following article discusses “off-label” treatments for the treatment of PTSD or traumatic brain injury, i.e. those which are not FDA-approved for these purposes. In some of these instances, there is no controlled research to support the use of these drugs in patients with PTSD. Thus the ideas noted here cannot be taken as anything more than anecdotal information from personal experience. Patients and physicians must make their own decisions about any of the strategies reported in this or other issues of BNN.
At a recent scientific conference, Vaishali P. Bakshi, a renowned Canadian psychopharmacologist, shared a novel treatment strategy he has developed for patients with exceptionally profound degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which, particularly among military veterans, can be compounded by traumatic brain injury.
Treatment options based on placebo-controlled clinical trials are sometimes insufficient for the treatment of seriously ill patients. FDA-approved treatment for PTSD consists of serotonin-selective antidepressants, while exposure therapies (in which the patient is gradually exposed to more of the stimuli that triggered symptoms) are the recommended psychotherapy, but these methods often leave patients highly disabled.
Bakshi’s typical treatment algorithm goes well beyond these treatment guidelines to find solutions for hard-to-treat patients. He first addresses sleep disturbance, which often occurs in PTSD. He suggests the anticonvulsant levetiracetam (Keppra), starting at doses of 150mg per night and increasing to 500–1000mg as tolerated. This highly sedating anticonvulsant not only improves sleep but may also help cognition, since it is structurally similar to other cognitive enhancers such as piracetam. Levetiracetam also decreases the hippocampal hyperactivity associated with some forms of cognitive dysfunction, as we’ve noted before. In order to further enhance sleep effects, Bakshi adds trazodone at 50–150mg per night as needed.
Instead of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), Bakshi recommends the selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Among these, he prefers desvenlafaxine (Pristiq) over venlafaxine, as desvenlafaxine has fewer interactions with other drugs. Theoretically, duloxetine (Cymbalta) is another SNRI that could be used.
Another component of Bakshi’s treatment plan is topiramate (Topamax), which can target many comorbidities of PTSD, including alcohol and substance abuse, particularly stimulant abuse. In addition, topiramate has efficacy in anger attacks, which often accompany PTSD.
In patients with ongoing problems with depression and/or cognition, Bakshi adds bupropion (Wellbutrin). Read more
Bumetanide has been used for decades to treat fluid retention in those with heart failure or liver or kidney disease. In the brain, it allows chloride ions to leave cells more easily. Scientists researching pediatric seizures think that reducing the chloride inside brain cells helps GABA neurons’ inhibitory functions work better. This led to speculation that bumetanide could be useful in neonatal epilepsy and autism.
In a 2012 study by French researchers including Eric Lemonnier that was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, 60 patients aged 3 to 11 who had been diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s syndrome were given either placebo or 1mg of bumetanide daily for 3 months. By the end of the study, the children who received bumetanide showed an average reduction of 5.6 points on the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS), which is assessed from observing behavior during videotaped sessions of children playing with their caregiver and questioning the child’s parents. Children taking placebo showed a reduction of 1.8 points (a statistically significant difference). Clinicians in the study rated almost twice as many children who took bumetanide as having made a significant or a small improvement. Stereotyped behavior and restricted interest were the areas of behavior that seemed to improve most after treatment with bumetanide. Patients with milder autism when the study began tended to improve more than those who started out with more severe symptoms. Symptoms returned to previous levels within a month the study’s end.
Bumetanide’s side effects are well known. It can sometimes cause decreases in potassium in the blood (hypokalemia), so the children’s potassium levels were monitored closely. One child was withdrawn from the study for hypokalemia, which can predispose one to cardiac arrhythmias.