“Epigenetic Changes After Trauma May Be Adaptive, Contribute to Resilience”

Originally From Psychiatric News Update

In recent years, research throughout the scientific and medical community has suggested a link between trauma and epigenetic changes, chemical modifications that affect gene activity without actually changing the gene’s DNA sequence. The assumption has been that epigenetic changes in the context of trauma are inherently bad, a form of damage that gets passed from generation to generation. But according to Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D., Endowed Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience of Trauma at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, these changes may also be adaptations that promote resilience.

“Sometimes the biological changes in response to trauma or intergenerational trauma are there to help deal with the problem of trauma, not compound its effects,” Yehuda said. “The survival advantage of this form of intergenerational transmission depends in large part on the environment encountered by the offspring themselves.”

Yehuda described this phenomenon as a paradox.

“Parental or ancestral trauma may heighten vulnerability to mental health challenges, but epigenetic adaptations may simultaneously facilitate coping mechanisms,” she said. “Trauma increases susceptibility for psychological distress, but also produces adaptations that help us cope with them.”

Yehuda described research she and her colleagues have conducted to tease out how trauma in parents can affect offspring in the context of the biology of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Holocaust survivors and their children. As the research unfolded, Yehuda and colleagues found that survivors’ adult children were more likely to have mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and PTSD than Jewish people whose parents did not directly experience the Holocaust. This was especially true of children of Holocaust survivors who had PTSD. The researchers also found that many children of Holocaust survivors had low levels of the stress hormone cortisol, particularly if their parents had PTSD.

Yehuda and colleagues then conducted a series of studies that looked at the role of glucocorticoid receptors — the proteins to which cortisol must bind to exert its effects — and found evidence that these receptors were more sensitive in people with PTSD.

“In practical terms this means that even though someone with PTSD might have lower circulating levels of cortisol in their blood, their cells might react more strongly to the cortisol that is present,” Yehuda said.

Yehuda said that epigenetics provided further insight on the relationship between hypersensitive glucocorticoid receptors, cortisol, and PTSD. She explained the potential role of methylation, which is a chemical reaction in the body in which a small molecule called a methyl group gets added to DNA or DNA-associated proteins.

“Increased methylation generally impedes RNA transcription, whereas less methylation enhances gene expression,” Yehuda said.

In 2015, Yehuda and colleagues conducted a study involving combat veterans who had PTSD and found lower methylation on an important region on the participants’ glucocorticoid receptor gene. The changes were associated with cortisol and glucocorticoid receptor sensitivity in the study participants, suggesting a potential epigenetic explanation for the association between the trauma of combat and PTSD.

Yehuda said that stress-related epigenetic changes may be reversible. For example, one of the studies conducted by her team revealed that combat veterans with PTSD who benefited from cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy showed treatment-induced changes in the methylation of a gene that regulates glucocorticoid receptor sensitivity. Yehuda said that this finding confirmed that healing is also reflected in epigenetic change.

“That we can transform to meet environmental challenge is a superpower. That is resilience,” Yehuda said.” ?

Yehuda then went on to describe the striking and lasting effects of the psychedelics psilocybin and MDMA in trauma and in helping patients confront their fears in a positive and hopeful fashion. These agents which are given with intensive psychotherapeutic support are not yet FDA approved, but preliminary data suggest that they can have dramatic therapeutic effects in trauma and depression. They can help patients change their attitudes to themselves and the world.

LITHIUM IS VASTLY UNDER-UTILIZED IN BIPOLAR DISORDER LEADING TO PREMATURE DEATH AND DISABILITY: WE WANT YOU TO HELP REVERSE THIS ANOMALOUS TREND

We are looking for people who have had a good course of illness with lithium included in their treatment regimen to help spread the word that lithium works extremely well and its side effects are erroneously overestimated.

We are hoping that you, as a good responder to lithium, will start a positive chain letter to fellow patients, family members, and friends suggesting that earlier and greater use of lithium would be overwhelmingly likely to improve the lives of many individuals with bipolar illness.

Why do we need you? It is because every expert in the treatment of bipolar illness of whom I am aware of has long advocated for greater and earlier use of lithium, but with little success. Lithium is widely recognized as a first line and treatment of choice for bipolar disorder, yet its use remains miniscule. In the US somewhere between only 10 to 27% of bipolar patients are given lithium. This has tragic consequences.

Treatment outcomes of the illness remain poor with vast numbers of patients experiencing pain, disability, memory loss, and loss of many years of life expectancy from suicide, cardiovascular disease, and many other psychiatric and medical disabilities. Compared to the general population, people with bipolar illness lose between 10-15 years of life expectancy. A new study by Carvalho et al (Psychother Psychosom, 2024) of more than 50,000 patients with a first episode of mania compared to more than 250,000 matched controls have a significantly higher rate of all cause mortality and a 10 fold increase of suicide. Those treated with lithium have a significantly lower rate of both all cause mortality and of suicide.

In addition, lithium has many other assets, besides the treatment of mania, of which most people are unaware and the liabilities of its side effects profile are over estimated. Some of the positive’s of lithium are listed below. Please print this ‘list of assets of lithium out and give it to everyone who might be interested. Patients with bipolar disorder should also print it out for their treating physicians, particularly if they do not as yet have lithium in their treatment regimen.

At the same time lithium’s side effects are over emphasized. The biggest concern is that lithium causes end stage kidney dysfunction eventually leading to dialysis. This is likely based on findings that individuals with bipolar disorder have an increase in most medical illnesses including chronic kidney disease compared to the general population. However, two very large trans-national studies of bipolar patients in Denmark and in Israel have found that bipolar patients treated with lithium are no more likely to get end stage renal disease than those treated with anticonvulsants such as valproate (Depakote). Lithium does cause low thyroid function in 15-25% of patients, but this is easily corrected with replacement of thyroid hormone. Many other side effects of lithium such as tremor can be managed by using lower doses.

Bottom line: Lithium gets a bad rap.


Please tell everyone you know about the new data on lithium’s relative safety and its many assets including reducing all cause mortality and suicide and restoring many years of lost life expectancy. 14 of 15 studies indicate that if lithium is started early in course of bipolar disorder it is more effective than starting it after many episodes or rapid cycling have occurred. It also works well in youngsters with bipolar disorder and better in comparison to other treatments (Hafeman et al 2020). In addition, after a first mania, patients randomized to a year of treatment with lithium do better on all outcome measures than those given a year on quetiapine (Seroquel) including manic and depressive severity, functioning, cognition, and normality of brain imaging (Berk et al 2017).

One more conceptual breakthrough: Lithium is literally the original salt of the earth. It was generated just 20 minutes after the big bang origin of the universe and is considered an essential element. Common table salt, sodium chloride, emerged only many millions of years after the big bang. Also in six studies across multiple countries, higher minute levels of lithium in the drinking water have been shown to reduce the incidence of suicide in the general population. A very low dose of lithium 150-300mg/day has also been shown to reduce the progression of mild cognitive impairment in otherwise well elderly volunteers.

Do a good thing for other people. Relay this new view of lithium to everyone you can think of in hope that they will help get the word out to many others and improve the life, functioning, and longevity of those with bipolar disorder.

Suggest and promulgate a new mantra:
“LITHIUM PREVENTS EPISODES OF BIPOLAR ILLNESS, AND PROTECTS THE BRAIN AND BODY”

Bipolar I patient show dramatic reductions in white matter integrity

Thiel et al in Neuropsychopharmacology (2024) reported that “Compared with HC [healthy controls], BD-I patients exhibited lower FA [fractional anisotropy] in widespread clusters (ptfce-FWE?< 0.001), including almost all major projection, association, and commissural fiber tracts. BD-II patients also demonstrated lower FA compared with HC, although less pronounced (ptfce-FWE?=?0.049).”

Editors Note: These data once more emphasize the importance of using lithium (Li) in bipolar disorder as it can ameliorate the deficits in white matter integrity that are so prominent in the illness. Li also improve the loss of cortical grey matter volume that evolves with illness progression. Li prevents episodes of depression and mania and reduces the incidence of suicides. That Li can reverse or ameliorate brain abnormalities in bipolar disorder is one more piece of evidence that Li should be considered a disease modifying drug (DMD) and started early in the course of illness in almost all bipolar patients. The new mantra for patients and clinicians is: Use more lithium and prevent illness progression.

Cannabis Contributes to 15% of Case of Schizophrenia

A study in Psychological Medicine (May 2, 2023) reported on ” Danish registry data spanning five decades and representing more than 6.9 million people in Denmark to estimate the population-level percentage of schizophrenia cases attributable to (cannabis use disorder) CUD. A total of 60,563 participants were diagnosed with CUD. Three quarters of cases were in men; there were 45,327 incident cases of schizophrenia during the study period. The researchers estimate that in 2021, about 15% of schizophrenia cases among males aged 16 to 49 could have been avoided by preventing CUD, compared with 4% among females in this age range. For young men aged 21 to 30, the proportion of preventable schizophrenia cases related to CUD may be as high as 30%, the authors report.

Editors Note: Other data also support an increased risk for bipolar disorder in those abusing cannabis. The notion that cannabis use carries few risks is baloney. Making pot legal does not make it safe.

Assets of Exercise

Highlights from the International Society for Bipolar Disorders Conference Posters and Presentations, Chicago, June 22-25, 2023

Ben Goldstein of the University of Toronto gave a plenary talk on the benefits of exercise.

He found poor aerobic fitness in 19 of 20 young bipolar patients. They had low cerebral blood flow in proportion to the severity of their exhaustion after exercise. He noted the importance of stressing an endpoint of fitness for exercise rather than weight loss. Using an exercise coach and running with family and friends was helpful in motivating patients for consistent exercise.

Pediatric Bipolar Disorder is Associated with Neurocognitive Deficits

Highlights from the International Society for Bipolar Disorders Conference Posters and Presentations, Chicago, June 22-25, 2023

Maria Paula Maziero of The University of Texas Health Science Center At Houston reported that while euthymic youths with BD (bipolar disorder) exhibited significant dysfunction in working memory (WM), verbal learning, and memory domains, fluctuation between the mood states affected the type of cognitive dysfunction. They concluded: “Pediatric bipolar disorder patients have marked cognitive dysfunction involving multiple domains, especially executive measures. The severity of mood symptoms influences cognitive performance, but even euthymic persons perform lower than matched controls.

Childhood Bullying and Maltreatment Yield A Worse Course of Bipolar Illness

Highlights from the International Society for Bipolar Disorders Conference Posters and Presentations, Chicago, June 22-25, 2023

Georgina Hosang of Bart’s & The London, Queen Mary’s School of Medicine reported that bullying and maltreatment together were associated with more suicidal behaviors than either childhood experience alone.

Both Obesity and Bipolar Disorders in 2249 Individuals Show White Matter Microstructure Abnormalities

Lorielle Dietze of Dalhousie University “obtained body mass index (BMI) and diffusion tensor imaging derived fractional anisotropy (FA) values from 930 individuals with bipolar disorders (BD), and 1319 control individuals from 20 cohorts in the ENIGMA-BD Working Group.”

They “found that lower FA was associated with both BD and BMI, in five white matter tracts, including the corpus callosum and thalamic radiation. Nine ROIs were correlated with only BD, while higher BMI was uniquely correlated with lower FA in four white matter ROIs.”

They concluded: “For the first time we showed that both obesity and BD demonstrated lower FA in some of the same regions. The impact of obesity may be greater in some tracts in BD individuals.”

Greater Severity of Depression in Youth With Bipolar Disorder versus Unipolar Depression

Highlights from the International Society for Bipolar Disorders Conference Posters and Presentations, Chicago, June 22-25, 2023

Aaron Silverman of the University of Toronto, CAMH found that “youth (age 13-21) with [Bipolar Disorders] compared to those with [unipolar] depression had significantly higher (more severe) ratings on depressed mood (p = .001), irritability (p = .037), anhedonia (p = .004), negative self-image (p < .001), hopelessness (p = .04), fatigue (p = .001), hypersomnia (p = .001), suicidal ideation (p = .04), and recurrent thoughts of death (p < .001).”

The Systematic Treatment Optimization Program for Early Mania

Highlights from the International Society for Bipolar Disorders Conference Posters and Presentations, Chicago, June 22-25, 2023

A. Rathseesh and L. Yatham reported on the importance of systematic vigorous treatment of a first manic episode. If more episodes occurred, losses in cognition did not fully recover. All patients remitted within 1 year of their first mania. Recurrence occurred in 58% by year 1 and 74% by year 4. Predictors of functional recovery included sustained euthymia, especially absence of depressive symptoms, good cognitive functioning, and maintaining a normal weight. More aggressive treatment to prevent relapses in years 1-4 after a first manic episode appears needed and how exactly to achieve this requires further study.

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