Surface Area of Cortex Is Reduced After Multiple Manic Episodes

cortex

In a 2020 article in the journal Psychiatric Research: Neuroimaging, researcher Rashmin Achalia and colleagues described a study of structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that compared 30 people with bipolar I disorder who had had one or several episodes of mania to healthy volunteers. Compared to the healthy volunteers, people with bipolar disorder had “significantly lower surface area in bilateral cuneus, right postcentral gyrus, and rostral middle frontal gyri; and lower cortical volume in the left middle temporal gyrus, right postcentral gyrus, and right cuneus.”

The surface area of the cortex in patients with bipolar I disorder who had had a single episode of mania resembled that of the healthy volunteers, while those who had had multiple manic episodes had less cortical surface area.

The data suggest that compared to healthy volunteers, people with bipolar disorder have major losses in brain surface area after multiple episodes that are not seen in first episode patients. In addition, the researchers found that both the number of episodes and the duration of illness was correlated with the degree of deficit in the thickness in the left superior frontal gyrus. These decreases in brain measures occurred after an average of only 5.6 years of illness.

Editor’s Note:  These data once again emphasize the importance of preventing illness recurrence from the outset, meaning after the first episode. Preventing episodes may prevent the loss of brain surface and thickness.  

Clinical data has also shown that multiple episodes are associated with personal pain and distress, dysfunction, social and economic losses, cognitive deficits, treatment resistance, and multiple medical and psychiatric comorbidities. These and other data indicate that treatment after a first episode must be more intensive, multimodal, and continuous and include expert psychopharmacological and psychosocial support, as well as family education and support. Intensive treatment like this can be life-saving. The current study also supports the mantra we have espoused: prevent episodes, protect the brain and the person.

Left Prefrontal Strokes Linked to Depression

man touching head

In a 2021 article in the journal Stroke, researcher Julian Klingbeil and colleagues reported that left, but not right, ventrolateral prefrontal stroke lesions were associated with increased risk of depression at six months post-stroke.

The study included 270 participants who had their first-ever stroke. Six months following their strokes, 19.6% of the participants had depression. Those who scored higher on a scale of depression and anxiety symptoms in the first month after their stroke were more likely to have depression six months after the stroke.

The researchers identified a cluster of locations for stroke lesions, mostly within the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, that they linked to depression symptoms six months post-stroke. Klingbeil and colleagues hope that recognizing lesions in this region as risk factors for depression will help with early diagnosis of depression among people who recently had a stroke.

Editor’s Note: Antidepressants have been shown to improve post-stroke recovery of neurological functional (and depression) that is caused by the cutoff of blood supply during a stroke (ischemia). Patients and their family members should talk with their neurologist about treatment of ischemic strokes with antidepressants, especially when the lesions occur on the left side of the brain.  

Psychiatric Disorders Linked to More Physical Disease

May 19, 2021 · Posted in Comorbidities, Peer-Reviewed Published Data · Comment 
man seeing primary care physician

In an article in the journal JAMA Network Open, Leah S. Richmond-Rakerd and colleagues found that people with mental disorders had more physical disease at younger ages, they had more and longer hospitalizations and associated health care costs, and they were more likely to die at younger ages than people without mental disorders.

The research came from a population-based cohort study of more than 2.3 million citizens of New Zealand over three decades. The authors concluded, “These findings suggest that ameliorating mental disorders may have implications for improving the length and quality of life and for reducing the health care costs associated with physical diseases.” 

Editor’s Note: This editor would suggest the importance of also doing the opposite, that is, looking out for and treating and preventing the physical illnesses to which psychiatric patients are more vulnerable in order to improve the length and quality of life.

Either way, medical illnesses, both physical and psychiatric, are intimately intertwined, and both deserve careful and early intervention. Psychiatric and physical illnesses cause suffering, disability, and early demise. Major psychiatric illnesses need to be seen as potentially lethal medical illnesses, a fact that few people realize. Conversely, physical illnesses are often not treated as aggressively or intensively in psychiatric patients as in the general population. For example, patients with bipolar disorder get fewer interventions with stents and bypasses for the same heart problems as others. Special attention needs to be given to better encourage and support the medical health of psychiatric patients.

ADHD Common in People with Mood Disorders

May 11, 2021 · Posted in Comorbidities, Diagnosis, Peer-Reviewed Published Data · Comment 
teenagers

In a meta-analysis published in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica in 2021, researcher Andrea Sandstrom and colleagues reported that people with mood disorders had a three times higher incidence of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than people without mood disorders. ADHD was also more likely to occur in people with bipolar disorder than in people with major depression. The comorbidity is most common in childhood, less so in adolescence, and lowest in adulthood. 

Based on 92 studies including a total of 17,089 individuals, the prevalence of ADHD in people with bipolar disorder is 73% in childhood, 43% in adolescence, and 17% in adulthood. Data from 52 studies with 16,897 individuals indicated that prevalence of ADHD in major depressive disorder is 28% in childhood, 17% in adolescence, and 7% in adulthood.

Editor’s Note: A key implication of this research is that there is a huge overlap of bipolar disorder and ADHD in childhood, and that physicians need to specifically look for bipolar symptoms that are not common in ADHD to make a correct diagnosis. These include: brief or extended periods of mood elevation and decreased need for sleep in the youngest children; suicidal or homicidal thoughts and threats in slightly older children; hyper-sexual interests and actions; and hallucinations and delusions. When these are present, even when there are also clear-cut ADHD symptoms, a clinician must consider a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and treat the child with mood stabilizers prior to using stimulants or other traditional ADHD medications.

Conversely, physicians should be aware of the much lower incidence of ADHD in adolescents and adults with bipolar disorder. Here one should first make sure that the apparent ADHD symptoms of hyperactivity, inattention, poor concentration, etc. do not result from inadequately treated mania and depression, and if they do, treat these symptoms to remission prior to using traditional ADHD medications.

Study Examines Comorbidity of ADHD and Bipolar Disorder

three generations of men

In a 2021 review and meta-analysis in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, researcher Carmen Schiweck and colleagues described the comorbidity of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder in adults. This was the first review and meta-analysis to quantify the comorbidity of the two fairly prevalent disorders. The meta-analysis included 71 studies with a combined total of 646,766 participants from 18 countries.

The review found that among people with ADHD, about 1 in 13 also have bipolar disorder, while among people with bipolar disorder, 1 in 6 have comorbid ADHD. The prevalence differed depending on the continent where patients lived and the diagnostic systems used there, with greater prevalence of both disorders in the US, where the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is used, than in Europe, where the International Classification of Diseases is typically used. (Other parts of the world were less represented in the meta-analysis.) Schiweck and colleagues found that bipolar disorder had an onset about 4 years earlier in patients who had comorbid ADHD.

Insomnia Plays Critical Role in Bipolar Disorder

April 6, 2021 · Posted in Peer-Reviewed Published Data, Risk Factors · Comment 
man awake in bed

In a 2021 article in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, researcher Laura Palagini and colleagues reported that insomnia symptoms can affect the course of bipolar illness. In a helpful summary and interview in the Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network’s Psych Focus, she stated that: 

“1) BD patients in a depressive phase with clinically significant insomnia met a greater severity not only of depressive symptoms and suicidal risk, but also of early life stressors and the cognitive part of hopelessness, compared with patients without insomnia

“2) insomnia symptoms could predict mood symptoms, suicidal ideation and plans, and the cognitive component of hopelessness

“3) insomnia symptoms might mediate the effect of early life stressors on mood symptoms, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation and behaviors.”

Palagini suggested that “Insomnia symptoms should be easily addressed in clinical practice with 1–2 questions. Insomnia treatment should be considered as a treatment to prevent …relapse and recurrence [of bipolar disorder] and to prevent suicide and the effect of early life stress on [bipolar disorder].”

Editor’s Note:  Regular nightly rating of mood, functioning, hours of sleep, medications, life events, side effects, and other comorbid symptoms on the Monthly Mood Chart Personal Calendar (pdf) is an easy way for patients with bipolar disorder to carefully track their illness trajectory and the completeness of their response to medications.

A decrease in the hours of sleep should be used as a possible early warning sign of impending difficulties, or even a new episode. Patients should discuss with their physician the threshold of insomnia (such as the loss of 2 hours of sleep for two days in a row) that should trigger a call to the physician, and what interventions the patient might initiate for lesser amounts of sleep loss and/or changes in mood. Heading these off early may prevent the breakthrough of a full-blown manic or depressive episode.

Neurotransmitters Can Also Function As Epigenetic Marks

June 2, 2020 · Posted in Genetics, Peer-Reviewed Published Data · Comment 
lab rat

The most common epigenetic marks involve methylation of DNA (which usually inhibits gene transcription) and the acetylation and methylation of histones. Acetylation opens or loosens the winding of DNA around the histones and facilitates transcription, while methylation of histones leaves the DNA tightly wound and inhibits transcriptional activation.

Researcher Ashley E. Lepack and colleagues have identified a surprising type of epigenetic mechanism involving neurotransmitters. They report in a 2020 article in the journal Science that neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine can act as epigenetic marks. Dopamine can bind to histone H3, a process called called dopaminylation (H3Q5dop). In rats undergoing withdrawal from cocaine, Lepack and colleagues found increased levels of H3Q5dop in dopamine neurons in a part of the midbrain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a part of the brain’s reward system. When the investigators reduced H3Q5dop, this decreased dopamine release in the reward area of the brain (the nucleus accumbens) and reduced cocaine seeking. Thus, dopamine can be both an important transmitter conveying messages between neurons and a chemical mark on histones that alters DNA binding and transcriptional regulation.

Researcher Jean-Antoine Girault provided commentary on the article by Lepack and colleagues, writing that “[t]he use of the same monoamine molecule as a neurotransmitter and a histone modification in the same cells illustrates that evolution proceeds by molecular tinkering, using available odds and ends to make innovations.”

Editor’s Note: Epigenetic marks may remain stable and influence behavior over long periods of time. They are involved in the increased reactivity or sensitization to repeated doses of cocaine through DNA methylation. Such sensitization can last over a period of months or longer. If the methylation inhibitor zebularine is given, animals fail to show sensitization. Now a newly identified epigenetic process, dopaminylation, is found to alter histones and is associated with long-term changes in cocaine-seeking.

The clinical message for a potential cocaine user is ominous. Cocaine not only creates a short-term “high,” but its repeated use rewires the brain not only at the level of changes in neurotransmitter release and receptor sensitivity, but also at the genetic and epigenetic level, changes that could persist indefinitely.

The sensitization to motor hyperactivity and euphoria that occur with cocaine use can progress to paranoia and panic attacks and eventually even seizures (through a process known as kindling).

The dopaminylation of histones in the VTA could lead to persistent increases in drug craving and addiction that may not be easily overcome. Thus, the appealing short-term effects of cocaine can spiral into increasingly adverse behaviors and drug-seeking can become all consuming. While these adversities do not emerge for everyone, the best way to ensure that they do not is to avoid cocaine from the start.

Manic episodes that include a feeling of invincibility, increased social contacts, and what the DSM-5 describes as “excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences” are a time that many are at risk for acquiring a substance problem. For the adolescent who has had a manic episode, ongoing counseling about avoiding developing this type of additional long-term, difficult-to-treatment psychiatric illness could be lifesaving. Describing the epigenetic consequences of substance use may or may not be helpful, but may be worth a try.

Environment Can Leave “Molecular Scars” Via Epigenetic Processes

May 29, 2020 · Posted in Genetics, Peer-Reviewed Published Data · Comment 
DNA

A 2020 review article by researchers Julia Richetto and Urs Meyer in the journal Biological Psychiatry provides a good overview of the role epigenetic modifications play in schizophrenia and related disorders.

The article provides a powerful understanding of how the environment can induce long-lasting changes in the structure of DNA (not only in schizophrenia, but also in bipolar disorder). This process, known as epigenetics, can have life-long influences on brain chemistry and behavior, and remarkably, some of these epigenetic changes can even be transmitted to the next generation.

While the sequence of DNA that one inherits from one’s parents does not change over the course of one’s life, what can change is how loosely or tightly the DNA is wound around proteins called histones, making it easier or harder to transcribe the genetic material held there. The addition of a methyl group to DNA usually inhibits transcription, while the addition of an acetyl group to histones usually facilitates transcription. These alterations in the shape of the DNA that result from environmental exposures or behavior can be passed on through generations.

Richetto and Meyer describe these chemical changes to DNA as “molecular scars,” which are left when environmental stress occurs during sensitive developmental periods. For example, patients with schizophrenia who experienced stressors in early life have higher levels of the enzyme histone deacetylase than patients who had stress or trauma later in life. Histone deacetylase would remove the acetyl groups on histones, which would inhibit gene transcription.

Other factors that have been implicated in epigenetic modifications in schizophrenia, such as DNA methylation of key developmental pathways, include pre- or post-natal stress, a challenge to a mother’s immune system during pregnancy, pre- and post-natal nutrition, exposure to drugs or toxic substances, and cannabis use in adolescence.

Richetto and Meyer suggest that epigenetics may explain why schizophrenia (and we would add bipolar disorder) can differ so much across individuals, and may help researchers and clinicians determine how best to treat different individuals.

Editor’s Note: This editor has written about how epigenetic changes can mediate sensitization to the recurrence of life stressors, episodes of mood disorder, and bouts of substance abuse, each of which can drive illness exacerbation and progression in bipolar disorder (see the 2016 article by Robert M. Post in the journal Bipolar Disorders, “Epigenetic basis of sensitization to stress, affective episodes, and stimulants: implications for illness progression and prevention”).

The chemical changes to our DNA, histones, and microRNA emphasize how important it is to begin long-term preventative treatment starting after a first episode of mania. This not only helps limit episode recurrence and the accumulation of stressors and bouts of substance use that can cause illness deterioration, but also limit the placement of these “molecular scars” on our DNA. The key to treating bipolar disorder is: prevent episodes, protect the person and the brain.

New Type of Antipsychotic Drug for Schizophrenia Looks Promising

Photo by The-Lore.com on Unsplash

In a 2020 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, researcher Kenneth S. Koblan and colleagues described a new type of antipsychotic drug treatment for schizophrenia. Almost all other antipsychotic drugs block dopamine D2 receptors, while atypical antipsychotics also block the serotonin 5HT2 receptor. They are described as antagonists at these receptors.

In contrast, the new drug is an agonist or activator of two different receptors. The drug SEP-363856 (also called SEP-856) activates the trace amine–associated receptor 1 (TAAR1) and 5-hydroxytryptamine (or serotonin) type 1A (5-HT1A) receptors.

Blocking D2 receptors can cause Parkinson’s-like symptoms (such as tremor, masked faces, and impaired movement or speech) and other extrapyramidal side effects (such as slurred speech, slow movements, or restless legs.) In contrast, SEP-856 seems to have a better side effects profile than these types of drugs while also being highly effective.

Patients with an acute exacerbation of schizophrenia were assigned to receive either placebo or once-daily treatment with SEP-856 (either 50mg or 75mg) for four weeks. A total of 120 patients received SEP-856 while 125 received placebo.

Compared to the placebo group, the SEP-856 group showed significantly greater reductions on a scale of positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia by the end of the four weeks. Side effects included some sleepiness and gastrointestinal symptoms, but the incidence of extrapyramidal symptoms and changes in the levels of lipids, glycated hemoglobin, and prolactin were similar in both groups. There was one sudden death from cardiac causes in the SEP-856 group, which was not thought to be drug-related.

Editor’s Note: This drug acting on trace amine–associated receptor 1 (TAAR1) and 5HT1A receptors could herald a new and better tolerated type of antipsychotic. It is also being studied for psychosis in Parkinson’s disease. Since all of the antipsychotics that treat schizophrenia have also shown antimanic efficacy, we look forward to future studies of this unique drug in patients with mania.

Endocannabinoid System May Help Explain Tourette Syndrome

May 19, 2020 · Posted in Neurochemistry, Peer-Reviewed Published Data · Comment 
Photo by Roman Bilik on Unsplash

Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters produced by the human body that attach to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, the same receptors that are affected by the consumption of cannabis products.

Tourette syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by tics and psychological symptoms, is probably caused by some dysfunction involving the neurotransmitter dopamine. The syndrome is usually treated with dopamine receptor blockers but is also eased by cannabis use and treatment with THC, the main psychoactive component in cannabis. Recently, researchers set out to determine whether concentrations of endocannabinoids in the cerebrospinal system are related to Tourette syndrome.

In an article published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology in 2020, researcher Kirsten R. Müller-Vahl and colleagues report that endocannabinoid concentrations were significantly higher in the cerebrospinal fluid of 20 people with Tourette’s syndrome than in 19 control participants without Tourette’s.

The researchers found elevations in the endocannabinoids AEA and 2-AG, the endocannabinoid-like ligand PEA, and the metabolite AA in the participants with Tourette’s syndrome. Levels of 2-AG in the cerebrospinal fluid correlated with severity of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms, an aspect of the syndrome.

It is possible that higher concentrations of endocannabinoids are present in the syndrome because they compensate for the overactive influence of dopamine. This explanation would fit with the effectiveness of cannabis in treating Tourette’s. However, that has not yet been determined, and it is also possible that the endocannabinoids are a reaction to dysfunction involving other neurotransmitters, are incidental to the syndrome, or in the best case that they are a direct cause of the syndrome.

Müller-Vahl and colleagues suggest that based on the effectiveness of cannabis in treating Tourette’s, it may turn out that the syndrome is a sort of endocannabinoid deficiency. They believe this hypothesis is not counteracted by the high levels of cannabinoids they found in Tourette’s patients in this study, because these high levels may be accompanied by a reduced number or reduced sensitivity of the cannabinoid receptors or overactivity in the enzymes that break down endocannabinoids, such that it is difficult to maintain normal levels of these neurotransmitters.

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