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ALKS-5461 failed to meet its primary efficacy endpoints in two trials from 2016. On the basis of a third study that did meet its primary endpoints, Alkermes initiated a rolling New Drug Application with the FDA.
In November 2018, a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel voted against recommending approval, finding that evidence was insufficient. As such, approval of the medication was rejected in 2019. It is a κ-opioid receptor (KOR) antagonist and is being developed by Alkermes.
ALKS-5461 was granted Fast Track Designation by the FDA for treatment-resistant depression in October 2013. During June and July 2014, three phase III clinical trials were initiated in the United States for treatment-resistant depression. Alkermes reported that the first two trials failed in 2016. In August 2017, based on the third trial, Alkermes announced the initiation of a rolling submission of a New Drug Application for ALKS-5461 to the FDA. On 31 January 2018, Alkermes submitted a New Drug Application for ALKS-5461 to the FDA for the adjunctive treatment of major depressive disorder. The submission was accepted by the FDA on 09 April 2018 after initially serving a refuse-to-file letter due to insufficient evidence of overall effectiveness.
In November 2018, an FDA advisory committee voted 21-2 against recommending approval of ALKS-5461 for MDD, setting the medication up for likely rejection. The main reason cited was insufficient evidence of effectiveness. The panel voted in favour of adequate safety having been demonstrated.
ALKS-5461 is a (1:1 ratio) combination of:
Buprenorphine, a weak partial agonist of the μ-opioid receptor (MOR), antagonist/very weak partial agonist of the κ-opioid receptor (KOR), and, to a lesser extent, antagonist of the δ-opioid receptor (DOR) and weak partial agonist of the nociceptin receptor (NOP); and
Samidorphan, a preferential antagonist of the MOR (but also, to a slightly lesser extent, weak partial agonist of the KOR and DOR).
The combination of these two drugs putatively results in what is functionally a blockade of KORs with negligible activation of MORs.
κ-Opioid Receptor Antagonism
It has been known since the 1980s that buprenorphine binds to at high affinity and antagonizes the KOR.
Through activation of the KOR, dynorphins, opioid peptides that are the endogenous ligands of the KOR and that can, in many regards, be figuratively thought of as functional inverses of the morphine-like, euphoric and stress-inhibiting endorphins, induce dysphoria and stress-like responses in both animals and humans, as well as psychotomimetic effects in humans, and are thought to be essential for the mediation of the dysphoric aspects of stress. In addition, dynorphins are believed to be critically involved in producing the changes in neuroplasticity evoked by chronic stress that lead to the development of depressive and anxiety disorders, increased drug-seeking behaviour, and dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. In support of this, in knockout mice lacking the genes encoding the KOR and/or prodynorphin (the endogenous precursor of the dynorphins), many of the usual effects of exposure to chronic stress are completely absent, such as increased immobility in the forced swimming test (a widely employed assay of depressive-like behaviour) and increased conditioned place preference for cocaine (a measure of the rewarding properties and addictive susceptibility to cocaine). Accordingly, KOR antagonists show robust efficacy in animal models of depression, anxiety, anhedonia, drug addiction, and other stress-related behavioural and physiological abnormalities.
A mouse study found that knockout of the MOR or DOR or selective pharmacological ablation of the NOP did not affect the antidepressant-like effects of buprenorphine, whereas knockout of the KOR abolished the antidepressant-like effects of the drug, supporting the notion that the antidepressant-like effects of buprenorphine are indeed mediated by modulation of the KOR by the drug (and not of the MOR, DOR, or NOP). However, a subsequent study found that the MOR may play an important role in the antidepressant-like effects of buprenorphine in animals.
Buprenorphine is not a silent antagonist of the KOR but rather a weak partial agonist. In vitro, it has shown some activation of the KOR at concentrations of ≥ 100 nM, with an Emax of 22% at 30 μM; no plateau in maximal response (EC50) was observed at concentrations up to 30 μM. Samidorphan similarly shows activation of the KOR in vitro, but to an even greater extent, with an EC50 of 3.3 nM and an Emax of 36%. As such, ALKS-5461 may possess both antagonistic and agonistic potential at the KOR. Because antagonism of the KOR seems to be responsible for the antidepressant effects of ALKS-5461, this property could in theory limit the effectiveness of ALKS-5461 in the treatment of depression.
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The efficacy of sertraline for depression is similar to that of other antidepressants, and the differences are mostly confined to side effects. Sertraline is better tolerated than the older tricyclic antidepressants, and it may work better than fluoxetine for some subtypes of depression. Sertraline is effective for panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). However, for OCD, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), particularly in combination with sertraline, is a better treatment. Although approved for post-traumatic stress disorder, sertraline leads to only modest improvement in this condition. Sertraline also alleviates the symptoms of premenstrual dysphoric disorder and can be used in sub-therapeutic doses or intermittently for its treatment.
Sertraline shares the common side effects and contraindications of other SSRIs, with high rates of nausea, diarrhoea, insomnia, and sexual side effects, but it appears not to lead to much weight gain, and its effects on cognitive performance are mild. Similar to other antidepressants, the use of sertraline for depression may be associated with a higher rate of suicidal thoughts and behaviour in people under the age of 25. It should not be used together with MAO inhibitor medication: this combination causes serotonin syndrome. Sertraline taken during pregnancy is associated with a significant increase in congenital heart defects in newborns.
Sertraline was invented and developed by scientists at Pfizer and approved for medical use in the United States in 1991. It is on the World Health Organisation’s List of Essential Medicines. It is available as a generic medication. In 2016, sertraline was the most commonly prescribed psychiatric medication in the US and in 2019, it was the twelfth most commonly prescribed medication in the US, with over 37 million prescriptions.
The history of sertraline dates back to the early 1970s, when Pfizer chemist Reinhard Sarges invented a novel series of psychoactive compounds, including lometraline, based on the structures of the neuroleptics thiothixene and pinoxepin. Further work on these compounds led to tametraline, a norepinephrine and weaker dopamine reuptake inhibitor. Development of tametraline was soon stopped because of undesired stimulant effects observed in animals. A few years later, in 1977, pharmacologist Kenneth Koe, after comparing the structural features of a variety of reuptake inhibitors, became interested in the tametraline series. He asked another Pfizer chemist, Willard Welch, to synthesize some previously unexplored tametraline derivatives. Welch generated a number of potent norepinephrine and triple reuptake inhibitors, but to the surprise of the scientists, one representative of the generally inactive cis-analogues was a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Welch then prepared stereoisomers of this compound, which were tested in vivo by animal behavioural scientist Albert Weissman. The most potent and selective (+)-isomer was taken into further development and eventually named sertraline. Weissman and Koe recalled that the group did not set up to produce an antidepressant of the SSRI type – in that sense their inquiry was not “very goal driven”, and the discovery of the sertraline molecule was serendipitous. According to Welch, they worked outside the mainstream at Pfizer, and even “did not have a formal project team”. The group had to overcome initial bureaucratic reluctance to pursue sertraline development, as Pfizer was considering licensing an antidepressant candidate from another company.
Sertraline was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1991 based on the recommendation of the Psychopharmacological Drugs Advisory Committee; it had already become available in the United Kingdom the previous year. The FDA committee achieved a consensus that sertraline was safe and effective for the treatment of major depression. During the discussion, Paul Leber, the director of the FDA Division of Neuropharmacological Drug Products, noted that granting approval was a “tough decision”, since the treatment effect on outpatients with depression had been “modest to minimal”. Other experts emphasized that the drug’s effect on inpatients had not differed from placebo and criticised poor design of the clinical trials by Pfizer. For example, 40% of participants dropped out of the trials, significantly decreasing their validity.
Until 2002, sertraline was only approved for use in adults ages 18 and over; that year, it was approved by the FDA for use in treating children aged 6 or older with severe OCD. In 2003, the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency issued a guidance that, apart from fluoxetine (Prozac), SSRIs are not suitable for the treatment of depression in patients under 18. However, sertraline can still be used in the UK for the treatment of OCD in children and adolescents. In 2005, the FDA added a boxed warning concerning paediatric suicidal behaviour to all antidepressants, including sertraline. In 2007, labelling was again changed to add a warning regarding suicidal behaviour in young adults ages 18 to 24.
Sertraline has been approved for major depressive disorder (MDD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder (SAD). Sertraline is not approved for use in children except for those with OCD.
Multiple controlled clinical trials established efficacy of sertraline for the treatment of depression. Sertraline is also an effective antidepressant in the routine clinical practice. Continued treatment with sertraline prevents both a relapse of the current depressive episode and future episodes (recurrence of depression).
In several double-blind studies, sertraline was consistently more effective than placebo for dysthymia, a more chronic variety of depression, and comparable to imipramine in that respect. Sertraline also improves the depression of dysthymic patients to a greater degree than psychotherapy.
Limited paediatric data also demonstrates reduction in depressive symptoms in the paediatric population though remains a second line therapy after fluoxetine.
Comparison with Other Antidepressants
In general, sertraline efficacy is similar to that of other antidepressants. For example, a meta-analysis of 12 new-generation antidepressants showed that sertraline and escitalopram are the best in terms of efficacy and acceptability in the acute-phase treatment of adults with depression. Comparative clinical trials demonstrated that sertraline is similar in efficacy against depression to moclobemide, nefazodone, escitalopram, bupropion, citalopram, fluvoxamine, paroxetine, venlafaxine, and mirtazapine. Sertraline may be more efficacious for the treatment of depression in the acute phase (first 4 weeks) than fluoxetine.
There are differences between sertraline and some other antidepressants in their efficacy in the treatment of different subtypes of depression and in their adverse effects. For severe depression, sertraline is as good as clomipramine but is better tolerated. Sertraline appears to work better in melancholic depression than fluoxetine, paroxetine, and mianserin and is similar to the tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline and clomipramine. In the treatment of depression accompanied by OCD, sertraline performs significantly better than desipramine on the measures of both OCD and depression. Sertraline is equivalent to imipramine for the treatment of depression with co-morbid panic disorder, but it is better tolerated. Compared with amitriptyline, sertraline offered a greater overall improvement in quality of life of depressed patients.
Depression in Elderly
Sertraline used for the treatment of depression in elderly (older than 60) patients is superior to placebo and comparable to another SSRI fluoxetine, and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) amitriptyline, nortriptyline and imipramine. Sertraline has much lower rates of adverse effects than these TCAs, with the exception of nausea, which occurs more frequently with sertraline. In addition, sertraline appears to be more effective than fluoxetine or nortriptyline in the older-than-70 subgroup. Accordingly, a meta-analysis of antidepressants in older adults found that sertraline, paroxetine and duloxetine were better than placebo. On the other hand, in a 2003 trial the effect size was modest, and there was no improvement in quality of life as compared to placebo. With depression in dementia, there is no benefit of sertraline treatment compared to either placebo or mirtazapine.
Sertraline is effective for the treatment of OCD in adults and children. It was better tolerated and, based on intention-to-treat analysis, performed better than the gold standard of OCD treatment clomipramine. Continuing sertraline treatment helps prevent relapses of OCD with long-term data supporting its use for up to 24 months. It is generally accepted that the sertraline dosages necessary for the effective treatment of OCD are higher than the usual dosage for depression. The onset of action is also slower for OCD than for depression. The treatment recommendation is to start treatment with a half of maximal recommended dose for at least two months. After that, the dose can be raised to the maximal recommended in the cases of unsatisfactory response.
CBT alone was superior to sertraline in both adults and children; however, the best results were achieved using a combination of these treatments.
Sertraline is superior to placebo for the treatment of panic disorder. The response rate was independent of the dose. In addition to decreasing the frequency of panic attacks by about 80% (vs. 45% for placebo) and decreasing general anxiety, sertraline resulted in improvement of quality of life on most parameters. The patients rated as “improved” on sertraline reported better quality of life than the ones who “improved” on placebo. The authors of the study argued that the improvement achieved with sertraline is different and of a better quality than the improvement achieved with placebo. Sertraline is equally effective for men and women, and for patients with or without agoraphobia. Previous unsuccessful treatment with benzodiazepines does not diminish its efficacy. However, the response rate was lower for the patients with more severe panic. Starting treatment simultaneously with sertraline and clonazepam, with subsequent gradual discontinuation of clonazepam, may accelerate the response.
Double-blind comparative studies found sertraline to have the same effect on panic disorder as paroxetine or imipramine. While imprecise, comparison of the results of trials of sertraline with separate trials of other anti-panic agents (clomipramine, imipramine, clonazepam, alprazolam, and fluvoxamine) indicates approximate equivalence of these medications.
Other Anxiety Disorders
Sertraline has been successfully used for the treatment of social anxiety disorder. All three major domains of the disorder (fear, avoidance, and physiological symptoms) respond to sertraline. Maintenance treatment, after the response is achieved, prevents the return of the symptoms. The improvement is greater among the patients with later, adult onset of the disorder. In a comparison trial, sertraline was superior to exposure therapy, but patients treated with the psychological intervention continued to improve during a year-long follow-up, while those treated with sertraline deteriorated after treatment termination. The combination of sertraline and CBT appears to be more effective in children and young people than either treatment alone.
Sertraline has not been approved for the treatment of generalised anxiety disorder; however, several guidelines recommend it as a first-line medication referring to good quality controlled clinical trials.
Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder
Sertraline is effective in alleviating the symptoms of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a severe form of premenstrual syndrome. Significant improvement was observed in 50-60% of cases treated with sertraline vs. 20-30% of cases on placebo. The improvement began during the first week of treatment, and in addition to mood, irritability, and anxiety, improvement was reflected in better family functioning, social activity and general quality of life. Work functioning and physical symptoms, such as swelling, bloating and breast tenderness, were less responsive to sertraline. Taking sertraline only during the luteal phase, that is, the 12-14 days before menses, was shown to work as well as continuous treatment. Continuous treatment with sub-therapeutic doses of sertraline (25 mg vs. usual 50-100 mg) is also effective.
Sertraline is approved for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). National Institute of Clinical Excellence recommends it for patients who prefer drug treatment to a psychological one. Other guidelines also suggest sertraline as a first-line option for pharmacological therapy. When necessary, long-term pharmacotherapy can be beneficial. There are both negative and positive clinical trial results for sertraline, which may be explained by the types of psychological traumas, symptoms, and comorbidities included in the various studies. Positive results were obtained in trials that included predominantly women (75%) with a majority (60%) having physical or sexual assault as the traumatic event. Contrary to the above suggestions, a meta-analysis of sertraline clinical trials for PTSD found it to be not significantly better than placebo. Another meta-analysis relegated sertraline to the second line, proposing trauma focused psychotherapy as a first-line intervention. The authors noted that Pfizer had declined to submit the results of a negative trial for the inclusion into the meta-analysis making the results unreliable.
Sertraline when taken daily can be useful for the treatment of premature ejaculation. A disadvantage of sertraline is that it requires continuous daily treatment to delay ejaculation significantly.
A 2019 systematic review suggested that sertraline may be a good way to control anger, irritability and hostility in depressed patients and patients with other comorbidities.
Sertraline is contraindicated in individuals taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors or the antipsychotic pimozide. Sertraline concentrate contains alcohol and is therefore contraindicated with disulfiram. The prescribing information recommends that treatment of the elderly and patients with liver impairment “must be approached with caution”. Due to the slower elimination of sertraline in these groups, their exposure to sertraline may be as high as three times the average exposure for the same dose.
Nausea, ejaculation failure, insomnia, diarrhoea, dry mouth, somnolence, dizziness, tremor, headache, excessive sweating, fatigue, and decreased libido are the common adverse effects associated with sertraline with the greatest difference from placebo. Those that most often resulted in interruption of the treatment are nausea, diarrhoea and insomnia. The incidence of diarrhoea is higher with sertraline – especially when prescribed at higher doses – in comparison with other SSRIs.
Over more than six months of sertraline therapy for depression, people showed a nonsignificant weight increase of 0.1%. Similarly, a 30-month-long treatment with sertraline for OCD resulted in a mean weight gain of 1.5% (1 kg). Although the difference did not reach statistical significance, the average weight gain was lower for fluoxetine (1%) but higher for citalopram, fluvoxamine and paroxetine (2.5%). Of the sertraline group, 4.5% gained a large amount of weight (defined as more than 7% gain). This result compares favourably with placebo, where, according to the literature, 3-6% of patients gained more than 7% of their initial weight. The large weight gain was observed only among female members of the sertraline group; the significance of this finding is unclear because of the small size of the group.
Over a two-week treatment of healthy volunteers, sertraline slightly improved verbal fluency but did not affect word learning, short-term memory, vigilance, flicker fusion time, choice reaction time, memory span, or psychomotor coordination. In spite of lower subjective rating, that is, feeling that they performed worse, no clinically relevant differences were observed in the objective cognitive performance in a group of people treated for depression with sertraline for 1.5 years as compared to healthy controls. In children and adolescents taking sertraline for six weeks for anxiety disorders, 18 out of 20 measures of memory, attention and alertness stayed unchanged. Divided attention was improved and verbal memory under interference conditions decreased marginally. Because of the large number of measures taken, it is possible that these changes were still due to chance. The unique effect of sertraline on dopaminergic neurotransmission may be related to these effects on cognition and vigilance.
Sertraline has a low level of exposure of an infant through the breast milk and is recommended as the preferred option for the antidepressant therapy of breast-feeding mothers. There is 29-42% increase in congenital heart defects among children whose mothers were prescribed sertraline during pregnancy, with sertraline use in the first trimester associated with 2.7-fold increase in septal heart defects.
Abrupt interruption of sertraline treatment may result in withdrawal or discontinuation syndrome. Dizziness, insomnia, anxiety, agitation, and irritability are its common symptoms. It typically occurs within a few days from drug discontinuation and lasts a few weeks. The withdrawal symptoms for sertraline are less severe and frequent than for paroxetine, and more frequent than for fluoxetine. In most cases symptoms are mild, short-lived, and resolve without treatment. More severe cases are often successfully treated by temporary reintroduction of the drug with a slower tapering off rate.
Sertraline and SSRI antidepressants in general may be associated with bruxism and other movement disorders. Sertraline appears to be associated with microscopic colitis, a rare condition of unknown aetiology.
Like other SSRIs, sertraline is associated with sexual side effects, including sexual arousal disorder, erectile dysfunction and difficulty achieving orgasm. While nefazodone and bupropion do not have negative effects on sexual functioning, 67% of men on sertraline experienced ejaculation difficulties versus 18% before the treatment. Sexual arousal disorder, defined as “inadequate lubrication and swelling for women and erectile difficulties for men”, occurred in 12% of people on sertraline as compared with 1% of patients on placebo. The mood improvement resulting from the treatment with sertraline sometimes counteracted these side effects, so that sexual desire and overall satisfaction with sex stayed the same as before the sertraline treatment. However, under the action of placebo the desire and satisfaction slightly improved. Some people continue experiencing sexual side effects after they stop taking SSRIs.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all antidepressants, including sertraline, to carry a boxed warning stating that antidepressants increase the risk of suicide in persons younger than 25 years. This warning is based on statistical analyses conducted by two independent groups of FDA experts that found a 100% increase of suicidal thoughts and behaviour in children and adolescents, and a 50% increase – in the 18-24 age group.
Suicidal ideation and behaviour in clinical trials are rare. For the above analysis, the FDA combined the results of 295 trials of 11 antidepressants for psychiatric indications in order to obtain statistically significant results. Considered separately, sertraline use in adults decreased the odds of suicidal behaviour with a marginal statistical significance by 37% or 50% depending on the statistical technique used. The authors of the FDA analysis note that “given the large number of comparisons made in this review, chance is a very plausible explanation for this difference”. The more complete data submitted later by the sertraline manufacturer Pfizer indicated increased suicidal behaviour. Similarly, the analysis conducted by the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) found a 50% increase of odds of suicide-related events, not reaching statistical significance, in the patients on sertraline as compared to the ones on placebo.
Acute overdosage is often manifested by emesis, lethargy, ataxia, tachycardia and seizures. Plasma, serum or blood concentrations of sertraline and norsertraline, its major active metabolite, may be measured to confirm a diagnosis of poisoning in hospitalised patients or to aid in the medicolegal investigation of fatalities. As with most other SSRIs its toxicity in overdose is considered relatively low.
As with other SSRIs, sertraline may increase the risk of bleeding with NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, naproxen, mefenamic acid), antiplatelet drugs, anticoagulants, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and garlic supplements due to sertraline’s inhibitory effects on platelet aggregation via blocking serotonin transporters on platelets. Sertraline, in particular, may potentially diminish the efficacy of levothyroxine.
Sertraline is a moderate inhibitor of CYP2D6 and CYP2B6 in vitro. Accordingly, in human trials it caused increased blood levels of CYP2D6 substrates such as metoprolol, dextromethorphan, desipramine, imipramine and nortriptyline, as well as the CYP3A4/CYP2D6 substrate haloperidol. This effect is dose-dependent; for example, co-administration with 50 mg of sertraline resulted in 20% greater exposure to desipramine, while 150 mg of sertraline led to a 70% increase. In a placebo-controlled study, the concomitant administration of sertraline and methadone caused a 40% increase in blood levels of the latter, which is primarily metabolized by CYP2B6.
Sertraline had a slight inhibitory effect on the metabolism of diazepam, tolbutamide and warfarin, which are CYP2C9 or CYP2C19 substrates; the clinical relevance of this effect was unclear. As expected from in vitro data, sertraline did not alter the human metabolism of the CYP3A4 substrates erythromycin, alprazolam, carbamazepine, clonazepam, and terfenadine; neither did it affect metabolism of the CYP1A2 substrate clozapine.
Sertraline had no effect on the actions of digoxin and atenolol, which are not metabolised in the liver. Case reports suggest that taking sertraline with phenytoin or zolpidem may induce sertraline metabolism and decrease its efficacy, and that taking sertraline with lamotrigine may increase the blood level of lamotrigine, possibly by inhibition of glucuronidation.
CYP2C19 inhibitor esomeprazole increased sertraline concentrations in blood plasma by approximately 40%.
Clinical reports indicate that interaction between sertraline and the MAOIs isocarboxazid and tranylcypromine may cause serotonin syndrome. In a placebo-controlled study in which sertraline was co-administered with lithium, 35% of the subjects experienced tremors, while none of those taking placebo did.
Sertraline may interact with grapefruit juice.
Sertraline is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). By binding serotonin transporter (SERT) it inhibits neuronal reuptake of serotonin and potentiates serotonergic activity in the central nervous system. Over time, this leads to a downregulation of pre-synaptic 5-HT1A receptors, which is associated with an improvement in passive stress tolerance, and delayed downstream increase in expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which may contribute to a reduction in negative affective biases. It does not significantly affect norepinephrine transporter (NET), serotonin, dopamine, adrenergic, histamine, acetylcholine, GABA or benzodiazepine receptors.
Sertraline also shows relatively high activity as an inhibitor of the dopamine transporter (DAT) and antagonist of the sigma σ1 receptor (but not the σ2 receptor). However, sertraline affinity for its main target (SERT) is much greater than its affinity for σ1 receptor and DAT. Although there could be a role for the σ1 receptor in the pharmacology of sertraline, the significance of this receptor in its actions is unclear. Similarly, the clinical relevance of sertraline’s blockade of the dopamine transporter is uncertain.
Following a single oral dose of sertraline, mean peak blood levels of sertraline occur between 4.5 and 8.4 hours. Bioavailability is likely linear and dose-proportional over a dose range of 150 to 200 mg. Concomitant intake of sertraline with food slightly increases sertraline peak levels and total exposure. There is an approximate 2-fold accumulation of sertraline with continuous administration and steady-state levels are reached within one week.
Sertraline is highly plasma protein bound (98.5%) across a concentration range of 20 to 500 ng/mL. Despite the high plasma protein binding, sertraline and its metabolite desmethylsertraline at respective tested concentrations of 300 ng/mL and 200 ng/mL were found not to interfere with the plasma protein binding of warfarin and propranolol, two other highly plasma protein-bound drugs.
Sertraline is subject to extensive first-pass metabolism, as indicated by a small study of radiolabelled sertraline in which less than 5% of plasma radioactivity was unchanged sertraline in two males. The principal metabolic pathway for sertraline is N-demethylation into desmethylsertraline (N-desmethylsertraline) mainly by CYP2B6. Reduction, hydroxylation, and glucuronide conjugation of both sertraline and desmethylsertraline also occur. Desmethylsertraline, while pharmacologically active, is substantially (50-fold) weaker than sertraline as a serotonin reuptake inhibitor and its influence on the clinical effects of sertraline is thought to be negligible. Based on in vitro studies, sertraline is metabolized by multiple cytochrome 450 isoforms; however, it appears that in the human body CYP2C19 plays the most important role, followed by CYP2B6. In addition to the cytochrome P450 system, sertraline can be oxidatively deaminated in vitro by monoamine oxidases; however, this metabolic pathway has never been studied in vivo.
The elimination half-life of sertraline is on average 26 hours, with a range of 13 to 45 hours. The half-life of sertraline is longer in women (32 hours) than in men (22 hours), which leads to 1.5-fold higher exposure to sertraline in women compared to men. The elimination half-life of desmethylsertraline is 62 to 104 hours.
In a small study of two males, sertraline was excreted to similar degrees in urine and faeces (40 to 45% each within 9 days). Unchanged sertraline was not detectable in urine, whereas 12 to 14% unchanged sertraline was present in faeces.
CYP2C19 and CYP2B6 are thought to be the key cytochrome P450 enzymes involved in the metabolism of sertraline. Relative to CYP2C19 normal (extensive) metabolisers, poor metabolisers have 2.7-fold higher levels of sertraline and intermediate metabolisers have 1.4-fold higher levels. In contrast, CYP2B6 poor metabolisers have 1.6-fold higher levels of sertraline and intermediate metabolisers have 1.2-fold higher levels.
Society and Culture
The US patent for Zoloft expired in 2006, and sertraline is available in generic form and is marketed under many brand names worldwide.
In May 2020, the FDA placed Zoloft on the list of drugs currently facing a shortage.
Lass-Flörl et al., 2003 finds sertraline significantly inhibits phospholipase B in the fungal genus Candida, reducing virulence. It is also a very effective leishmanicide. Specifically, Palit & Ali 2008 find that sertraline kills almost all promastigotes of Leishmania donovani.
This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sertraline >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.
Common side effects include nausea, trouble sleeping, sexual problems, shakiness, feeling tired, and sweating. Serious side effects include an increased risk of suicide in those under the age of 25, serotonin syndrome, glaucoma, and QT prolongation. It should not be used in persons who take or have recently taken a MAO inhibitor. Antidepressant discontinuation syndrome may occur when stopped. There are concerns that use during pregnancy may harm the foetus.
Citalopram was approved for medical use in the United States in 1998. It is on the World Health Organisation’s List of Essential Medicines. It is available as a generic medication. In 2019, it was the 30th most commonly prescribed medication in the United States, with more than 21 million prescriptions.
Citalopram was first synthesized in 1972 by chemist Klaus Bøgesø and his research group at the pharmaceutical company Lundbeck and was first marketed in 1989 in Denmark. It was first marketed in the US in 1998. The original patent expired in 2003, allowing other companies to legally produce and market generic versions.
In the United States, citalopram is approved to treat major depressive disorder. Citalopram appears to have comparable efficacy and superior tolerability relative to other antidepressants. In the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence ranking of ten antidepressants for efficacy and cost-effectiveness, citalopram is fifth in effectiveness (after mirtazapine, escitalopram, venlafaxine, and sertraline) and fourth in cost-effectiveness. The ranking results were based on a 2009 meta-analysis by Andrea Cipriani; an update of the analysis in 2018 produced broadly similar results.
Evidence for effectiveness of citalopram for treating depression in children is uncertain.
Citalopram is licensed in the UK and other European countries for panic disorder, with or without agoraphobia.
Citalopram may be used off-label to treat anxiety, and dysthymia, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
It appears to be as effective as fluvoxamine and paroxetine in OCD. Some data suggest the effectiveness of intravenous infusion of citalopram in resistant OCD. Citalopram is well tolerated and as effective as moclobemide in social anxiety disorder. There are studies suggesting that citalopram can be useful in reducing aggressive and impulsive behaviour. It appears to be superior to placebo for behavioural disturbances associated with dementia. It has also been used successfully for hypersexuality in early Alzheimer’s disease.
A meta-analysis, including studies with fluoxetine, paroxetine, sertraline, escitalopram, and citalopram versus placebo, showed SSRIs to be effective in reducing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, whether taken continuously or just in the luteal phase. For alcoholism, citalopram has produced a modest reduction in alcoholic drink intake and increase in drink-free days in studies of alcoholics, possibly by decreasing desire or reducing the reward.
While on its own citalopram is less effective than amitriptyline in the prevention of migraines, in refractory cases, combination therapy may be more effective.
Citalopram and other SSRIs can be used to treat hot flashes.
A 2009 multisite randomised controlled study found no benefit and some adverse effects in autistic children from citalopram, raising doubts whether SSRIs are effective for treating repetitive behaviour in children with autism.
Some research suggests citalopram interacts with cannabinoid protein-couplings in the rat brain, and this is put forward as a potential cause of some of the drug’s antidepressant effect.
Citalopram is typically taken in one dose, either in the morning or evening. It can be taken with or without food. Its absorption does not increase when taken with food, but doing so can help prevent nausea. Nausea is often caused when the 5HT3 receptors actively absorb free serotonin, as this receptor is present within the digestive tract. The 5HT3 receptors stimulate vomiting. This side effect, if present, should subside as the body adjusts to the medication.
Citalopram is considered safe and well tolerated in the therapeutic dose range. Distinct from some other agents in its class, it exhibits linear pharmacokinetics and minimal drug interaction potential, making it a better choice for the elderly or comorbid patients.
Sexual dysfunction is often a side effect with SSRIs.
Citalopram theoretically causes side effects by increasing the concentration of serotonin in other parts of the body (e.g. the intestines). Other side effects, such as increased apathy and emotional flattening, may be caused by the decrease in dopamine release associated with increased serotonin. Citalopram is also a mild antihistamine, which may be responsible for some of its sedating properties.
Other common side effects of citalopram include drowsiness, insomnia, nausea, weight changes (usually weight gain), increase in appetite, vivid dreaming, frequent urination, dry mouth, increased sweating, trembling, diarrhoea, excessive yawning, severe tinnitus, and fatigue. Less common side effects include bruxism, vomiting, cardiac arrhythmia, blood pressure changes, dilated pupils, anxiety, mood swings, headache, hyperactivity and dizziness. Rare side effects include convulsions, hallucinations, severe allergic reactions and photosensitivity. If sedation occurs, the dose may be taken at bedtime rather than in the morning. Some data suggests citalopram may cause nightmares. Citalopram is associated with a higher risk of arrhythmia than other SSRIs.
Withdrawal symptoms can occur when this medicine is suddenly stopped, such as paraesthesia, sleeping problems (difficulty sleeping and intense dreams), feeling dizzy, agitated or anxious, nausea, vomiting, tremors, confusion, sweating, headache, diarrhoea, palpitations, changes in emotions, irritability, and eye or eyesight problems. Treatment with citalopram should be reduced gradually when treatment is finished.
Citalopram and other SSRIs can induce a mixed state, especially in those with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. According to an article published in 2020, one of the other rare side effects of Citalopram could be triggering visual snow syndrome; which does not resolve after the discontinuation of the medicine.
Some people experience persistent sexual side effects after they stop taking SSRIs. This is known as Post-SSRI Sexual Dysfunction (PSSD). Common symptoms in these cases include genital anaesthesia, erectile dysfunction, anhedonia, decreased libido, premature ejaculation, vaginal lubrication issues, and nipple insensitivity in women. The prevalence of PSSD is unknown, and there is no established treatment.
Abnormal Heart Rhythm
In August 2011, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced, “Citalopram causes dose-dependent QT interval prolongation. Citalopram should no longer be prescribed at doses greater than 40 mg per day”. A further clarification issued in March 2012, restricted the maximum dose to 20 mg for subgroups of patients, including those older than 60 years and those taking an inhibitor of cytochrome P450 2C19.7.
As with other SSRIs, citalopram can cause an increase in serum prolactin level. Citalopram has no significant effect on insulin sensitivity in women of reproductive age and no changes in glycaemic control were seen in another trial.
Exposure in Pregnancy
Antidepressant exposure (including citalopram) during pregnancy is associated with shorter duration of gestation (by three days), increased risk of preterm delivery (by 55%), lower birth weight (by 75 g), and lower Apgar scores (by <0.4 points). Antidepressant exposure is not associated with an increased risk of spontaneous abortion. It is uncertain whether there is an increased prevalence of septal heart defects among children whose mothers were prescribed an SSRI in early pregnancy.
Citalopram should not be taken with St John’s wort, tryptophan or 5-HTP as the resulting drug interaction could lead to serotonin syndrome. With St John’s wort, this may be caused by compounds in the plant extract reducing the efficacy of the hepatic cytochrome P450 enzymes that process citalopram. It has also been suggested that such compounds, including hypericin, hyperforin and flavonoids, could have SSRI-mimetic effects on the nervous system, although this is still subject to debate. One study found that Hypericum extracts had similar effects in treating moderate depression as citalopram, with fewer side effects.
Tryptophan and 5-HTP are precursors to serotonin. When taken with an SSRI, such as citalopram, this can lead to levels of serotonin that can be lethal. This may also be the case when SSRIs are taken with SRAs (serotonin releasing agents) such as in the case of MDMA. It is possible that SSRIs could reduce the effects associated due to an SRA, since SSRIs stop the reuptake of Serotonin by blocking SERT. This would allow less serotonin in and out of the transporters, thus decreasing the likelihood of neurotoxic effects. However, these concerns are still disputed as the exact pharmacodynamic effects of citalopram and MDMA have yet to be fully identified.
SSRIs, including citalopram, can increase the risk of bleeding, especially when coupled with aspirin, NSAIDs, warfarin, or other anticoagulants. Citalopram is contraindicated in individuals taking MAOIs, owing to a potential for serotonin syndrome.
Taking citalopram with omeprazole may cause higher blood levels of citalopram. This is a potentially dangerous interaction, so dosage adjustments may be needed or alternatives may be prescribed.
SSRI discontinuation syndrome has been reported when treatment is stopped. It includes sensory, gastrointestinal symptoms, dizziness, lethargy, and sleep disturbances, as well as psychological symptoms such as anxiety/agitation, irritability, and poor concentration. Electric shock-like sensations are typical for SSRI discontinuation. Tapering off citalopram therapy, as opposed to abrupt discontinuation, is recommended in order to diminish the occurrence and severity of discontinuation symptoms. Some doctors choose to switch a patient to Prozac (fluoxetine) when discontinuing citalopram as fluoxetine has a much longer half-life (i.e. stays in the body longer compared to citalopram). This may avoid many of the severe withdrawal symptoms associated with citalopram discontinuation. This can be done either by administering a single 20 mg dose of fluoxetine or by beginning on a low dosage of fluoxetine and slowly tapering down. Either of these prescriptions may be written in liquid form to allow a very slow and gradual tapering down in dosage. Alternatively, a patient wishing to stop taking citalopram may visit a compounding pharmacy where their prescription may be re-arranged into progressively smaller dosages.
Overdosage may result in vomiting, sedation, disturbances in heart rhythm, dizziness, sweating, nausea, tremor, and rarely amnesia, confusion, coma, or convulsions. Overdose deaths have occurred, sometimes involving other drugs, but also with citalopram as the sole agent. Citalopram and N-desmethylcitalopram may be quantified in blood or plasma to confirm a diagnosis of poisoning in hospitalised patients or to assist in a medicolegal death investigation. Blood or plasma citalopram concentrations are usually in a range of 50-400 μg/l in persons receiving the drug therapeutically, 1000-3000 μg/l in patients who survive acute overdosage and 3-30 mg/l in those who do not survive. It is the most dangerous of SSRIs in overdose.
In the United States, citalopram carries a boxed warning stating it may increase suicidal thinking and behaviour in those under age 24.
Citalopram has one stereocentre, to which a 4-fluoro phenyl group and an N, N-dimethyl-3-aminopropyl group bind. As a result of this chirality, the molecule exists in (two) enantiomeric forms (mirror images). They are termed S-(+)-citalopram and R-(–)-citalopram.
Citalopram is sold as a racemic mixture, consisting of 50% (R)-(−)-citalopram and 50% (S)-(+)-citalopram. Only the (S)-(+) enantiomer has the desired antidepressant effect. Lundbeck now markets the (S)-(+) enantiomer, the generic name of which is escitalopram. Whereas citalopram is supplied as the hydrobromide, escitalopram is sold as the oxalate salt (hydrooxalate). In both cases, the salt forms of the amine make these otherwise lipophilic compounds water-soluble.
Citalopram is metabolised in the liver mostly by CYP2C19, but also by CYP3A4 and CYP2D6. Metabolites desmethylcitalopram and didesmethylcitalopram are significantly less energetic and their contribution to the overall action of citalopram is negligible. The half-life of citalopram is about 35 hours. Approximately 80% is cleared by the liver and 20% by the kidneys. The elimination process is slower in the elderly and in patients with liver or kidney failure. With once-daily dosing, steady plasma concentrations are achieved in about a week. Potent inhibitors of CYP2C19 and 3A4 might decrease citalopram clearance. Tobacco smoke exposure was found to inhibit the biotransformation of citalopram in animals, suggesting that the elimination rate of citalopram is decreased after tobacco smoke exposure. After intragastric administration, the half-life of the racemic mixture of citalopram was increased by about 287%.
Society and Culture
Citalopram is sold under these brand names:
Akarin (Denmark, Nycomed).
C Pram S (India).
Celapram (Australia and New Zealand).
Celexa (US and Canada, Forest Laboratories, Inc.).
Ciazil (Australia and New Zealand).
Cilate (South Africa).
Cilift (South Africa).
Cimal (South America, by Roemmers and Recalcine).
Cipralex (South Africa).
Cipram (Denmark and Turkey, H. Lundbeck A/S).
Cipramil (Australia, Brazil, Belgium, Chile, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, and the United Kingdom).
Cipraned, Cinapen (Greece).
Citabax, Citaxin (Poland).
Citalec (Czech Republic and Slovakia).
Citalex (Iran and Serbia).
Citalo (Australia, Egypt, and Pakistan).
Citalopram (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, the US).
Citrol (Europe and Australia).
Dalsan (Eastern Europe).
Humorap (Peru, Bolivia).
Oropram (Iceland, Actavis).
Recital (Israel, Thrima Inc. for Unipharm Ltd.).
Seropram (various European countries, including Czech Republic).
Talam (Europe and Australia).
Temperax (Argentina, Chile, and Peru).
Zentius (South America, by Roemmers and Recalcine).
Cipratal (Kuwait, GCC).
European Commission Fine
On 19 June 2013, the European Commission imposed a fine of €93.8 million on the Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck, plus a total of €52.2 million on several generic pharmaceutical-producing companies. This was in response to Lundbeck entering an agreement with the companies to delay their sales of generic citalopram after Lundbeck’s patent on the drug had expired, thus reducing competition in breach of European antitrust law.
Scientific studies have found that different brain areas show altered activity in people with major depressive disorder (MDD), and this has encouraged advocates of various theories that seek to identify a biochemical origin of the disease, as opposed to theories that emphasize psychological or situational causes.
Factors spanning these causative groups include nutritional deficiencies in magnesium, vitamin D, and tryptophan with situational origin but biological impact. Several theories concerning the biologically based cause of depression have been suggested over the years, including theories revolving around monoamine neurotransmitters, neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, inflammation and the circadian rhythm. Physical illnesses, including hypothyroidism and mitochondrial disease, can also trigger depressive symptoms.
Neural circuits implicated in depression include those involved in the generation and regulation of emotion, as well as in reward. Abnormalities are commonly found in the lateral prefrontal cortex whose putative function is generally considered to involve regulation of emotion. Regions involved in the generation of emotion and reward such as the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), and striatum are frequently implicated as well. These regions are innervated by a monoaminergic nuclei, and tentative evidence suggests a potential role for abnormal monoaminergic activity.
Difficulty of Gene Studies
Historically, candidate gene studies have been a major focus of study. However, as the number of genes reduces the likelihood of choosing a correct candidate gene, Type I errors (false positives) are highly likely. Candidate genes studies frequently possess a number of flaws, including frequent genotyping errors and being statistically underpowered. These effects are compounded by the usual assessment of genes without regard for gene-gene interactions. These limitations are reflected in the fact that no candidate gene has reached genome-wide significance.
The 5-HTTLPR, or serotonin transporter promoter gene’s short allele, has been associated with increased risk of depression; since the 1990s, however, results have been inconsistent. Other genes that have been linked to a gene-environment interaction include CRHR1, FKBP5 and BDNF, the first two of which are related to the stress reaction of the HPA axis, and the latter of which is involved in neurogenesis. Candidate gene analysis of 5-HTTLPR on depression was inconclusive on its effect, either alone or in combination with life stress.
A 2003 study proposed that a gene-environment interaction (GxE) may explain why life stress is a predictor for depressive episodes in some individuals, but not in others, depending on an allelic variation of the serotonin-transporter-linked promoter region (5-HTTLPR). This hypothesis was widely-discussed in both the scientific literature and popular media, where it was dubbed the “Orchid gene”, but has conclusively failed to replicate in much larger samples, and the observed effect sizes in earlier work are not consistent with the observed polygenicity of depression.
BDNF polymorphisms have also been hypothesized to have a genetic influence, but early findings and research failed to replicate in larger samples, and the effect sizes found by earlier estimates are inconsistent with the observed polygenicity of depression.
SIRT1 and LHPP
A 2015 GWAS study in Han Chinese women positively identified two variants in intronic regions near SIRT1 and LHPP with a genome-wide significant association.
Norepinephrine Transporter Polymorphisms
Attempts to find a correlation between norepinephrine transporter polymorphisms and depression have yielded negative results.
One review identified multiple frequently studied candidate genes. The genes encoding for the 5-HTT and 5-HT2A receptor were inconsistently associated with depression and treatment response. Mixed results were found for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) Val66Met polymorphisms. Polymorphisms in the tryptophan hydroxylase gene was found to be tentatively associated with suicidal behaviour. A meta analysis of 182 case controlled genetic studies published in 2008 found Apolipoprotein E verepsilon 2 to be protective, and GNB3 825T, MTHFR 677T, SLC6A4 44bp insertion or deletions, and SLC6A3 40 bpVNTR 9/10 genotype to confer risk.
Depression may be related to abnormalities in the circadian rhythm, or biological clock.
A well synchronised circadian rhythm is critical for maintaining optimal health. Adverse changes and alterations in the circadian rhythm have been associated various neurological disorders and mood disorders including depression.
Sleep disturbance is the most prominent symptom in depressive patients. Studies about sleep electroencephalograms have shown characteristic changes in depression such as reductions in non-rapid eye movement sleep production, disruptions of sleep continuity and disinhibition of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – the stage in which dreaming occurs – may be quick to arrive and intense in depressed people. REM sleep depends on decreased serotonin levels in the brain stem, and is impaired by compounds, such as antidepressants, that increase serotonergic tone in brain stem structures. Overall, the serotonergic system is least active during sleep and most active during wakefulness. Prolonged wakefulness due to sleep deprivation activates serotonergic neurons, leading to processes similar to the therapeutic effect of antidepressants, such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Depressed individuals can exhibit a significant lift in mood after a night of sleep deprivation. SSRIs may directly depend on the increase of central serotonergic neurotransmission for their therapeutic effect, the same system that impacts cycles of sleep and wakefulness.
Research on the effects of light therapy on seasonal affective disorder suggests that light deprivation is related to decreased activity in the serotonergic system and to abnormalities in the sleep cycle, particularly insomnia. Exposure to light also targets the serotonergic system, providing more support for the important role this system may play in depression. Sleep deprivation and light therapy both target the same brain neurotransmitter system and brain areas as antidepressant drugs, and are now used clinically to treat depression. Light therapy, sleep deprivation and sleep time displacement (sleep phase advance therapy) are being used in combination quickly to interrupt a deep depression in people who are hospitalised for MDD.
Increased and decreased sleep length appears to be a risk factor for depression. People with MDD sometimes show diurnal and seasonal variation of symptom severity, even in non-seasonal depression. Diurnal mood improvement was associated with activity of dorsal neural networks. Increased mean core temperature was also observed. One hypothesis proposed that depression was a result of a phase shift.
Daytime light exposure correlates with decreased serotonin transporter activity, which may underlie the seasonality of some depression.
Monoamines are neurotransmitters that include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.
Monoamine Hypothesis of Depression
Many antidepressant drugs acutely increase synaptic levels of the monoamine neurotransmitter, serotonin, but they may also enhance the levels of norepinephrine and dopamine. The observation of this efficacy led to the monoamine hypothesis of depression, which postulates that the deficit of certain neurotransmitters is responsible for depression, and even that certain neurotransmitters are linked to specific symptoms. Normal serotonin levels have been linked to mood and behaviour regulation, sleep, and digestion; norepinephrine to the fight-or-flight response; and dopamine to movement, pleasure, and motivation. Some have also proposed the relationship between monoamines and phenotypes such as serotonin in sleep and suicide, norepinephrine in dysphoria, fatigue, apathy, cognitive dysfunction, and dopamine in loss of motivation and psychomotor symptoms. The main limitation for the monoamine hypothesis of depression is the therapeutic lag between initiation of antidepressant treatment and perceived improvement of symptoms. One explanation for this therapeutic lag is that the initial increase in synaptic serotonin is only temporary, as firing of serotonergic neurons in the dorsal raphe adapt via the activity of 5-HT1A autoreceptors. The therapeutic effect of antidepressants is thought to arise from autoreceptor desensitization over a period of time, eventually elevating firing of serotonergic neurons.
Initial studies of serotonin in depression examined peripheral measures such as the serotonin metabolite 5-Hydroxyindoleacetic acid (5-HIAA) and platelet binding. The results were generally inconsistent, and may not generalise to the central nervous system. However evidence from receptor binding studies and pharmacological challenges provide some evidence for dysfunction of serotonin neurotransmission in depression. Serotonin may indirectly influence mood by altering emotional processing biases that are seen at both the cognitive/behavioural and neural level. Pharmacologically reducing serotonin synthesis, and pharmacologically enhancing synaptic serotonin can produce and attenuate negative affective biases, respectively. These emotional processing biases may explain the therapeutic gap.
While various abnormalities have been observed in dopaminergic systems, results have been inconsistent. People with MDD have an increased reward response to dextroamphetamine compared to controls, and it has been suggested that this results from hypersensitivity of dopaminergic pathways due to natural hypoactivity. While polymorphisms of the D4 and D3 receptor have been implicated in depression, associations have not been consistently replicated. Similar inconsistency has been found in post-mortem studies, but various dopamine receptor agonists show promise in treating MDD. There is some evidence that there is decreased nigrostriatal pathway activity in people with melancholic depression (psychomotor retardation). Further supporting the role of dopamine in depression is the consistent finding of decreased cerebrospinal fluid and jugular metabolites of dopamine, as well as post mortem findings of altered Dopamine receptor D3 and dopamine transporter expression. Studies in rodents have supported a potential mechanism involving stress-induced dysfunction of dopaminergic systems.
A number of lines of evidence indicative of decreased adrenergic activity in depression have been reported. Findings include the decreased activity of tyrosine hydroxylase, decreased size of the locus coeruleus, increased alpha 2 adrenergic receptor density, and decreased alpha 1 adrenergic receptor density. Furthermore, norepinephrine transporter knockout in mice models increases their tolerance to stress, implicating norepinephrine in depression.
One method used to study the role of monoamines is monoamine depletion. Depletion of tryptophan (the precursor of serotonin), tyrosine and phenylalanine (precursors to dopamine) does result in decreased mood in those with a predisposition to depression, but not in persons lacking the predisposition. On the other hand, inhibition of dopamine and norepinephrine synthesis with alpha-methyl-para-tyrosine does not consistently result in decreased mood.
An offshoot of the monoamine hypothesis suggests that monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A), an enzyme which metabolises monoamines, may be overly active in depressed people. This would, in turn, cause the lowered levels of monoamines. This hypothesis received support from a PET study, which found significantly elevated activity of MAO-A in the brain of some depressed people. In genetic studies, the alterations of MAO-A-related genes have not been consistently associated with depression. Contrary to the assumptions of the monoamine hypothesis, lowered but not heightened activity of MAO-A was associated with depressive symptoms in adolescents. This association was observed only in maltreated youth, indicating that both biological (MAO genes) and psychological (maltreatment) factors are important in the development of depressive disorders. In addition, some evidence indicates that disrupted information processing within neural networks, rather than changes in chemical balance, might underlie depression.
Since the 1990s, research has uncovered multiple limitations of the monoamine hypothesis, and its inadequacy has been criticised within the psychiatric community. For one thing, serotonin system dysfunction cannot be the sole cause of depression. Not all patients treated with antidepressants show improvements despite the usually rapid increase in synaptic serotonin. If significant mood improvements do occur, this is often not for at least two to four weeks. One possible explanation for this lag is that the neurotransmitter activity enhancement is the result of auto receptor desensitization, which can take weeks. Intensive investigation has failed to find convincing evidence of a primary dysfunction of a specific monoamine system in people with MDD. The antidepressants that do not act through the monoamine system, such as tianeptine and opipramol, have been known for a long time. There have also been inconsistent findings with regard to levels of serum 5-HIAA, a metabolite of serotonin. Experiments with pharmacological agents that cause depletion of monoamines have shown that this depletion does not cause depression in healthy people. Another problem that presents is that drugs that deplete monoamines may actually have antidepressant properties. Further, some have argued that depression may be marked by a hyperserotonergic state. Already limited, the monoamine hypothesis has been further oversimplified when presented to the general public.
As of 2012, efforts to determine differences in neurotransmitter receptor expression or for function in the brains of people with MDD using positron emission tomography (PET) had shown inconsistent results. Using the PET imaging technology and reagents available as of 2012, it appeared that the D1 receptor may be under-expressed in the striatum of people with MDD. 5-HT1A receptor binding literature is inconsistent; however, it leans towards a general decrease in the mesiotemporal cortex. 5-HT2A receptor binding appears to be unregulated in people with MDD. Results from studies on 5-HTT binding are variable, but tend to indicate higher levels in people with MDD. Results with D2/D3 receptor binding studies are too inconsistent to draw any conclusions. Evidence supports increased MAO activity in people with MDD, and it may even be a trait marker (not changed by response to treatment). Muscarinic receptor binding appears to be increased in depression, and, given ligand binding dynamics, suggests increased cholinergic activity.
Four meta analyses on receptor binding in depression have been performed, two on serotonin transporter (5-HTT), one on 5-HT1A, and another on dopamine transporter (DAT). One meta analysis on 5-HTT reported that binding was reduced in the midbrain and amygdala, with the former correlating with greater age, and the latter correlating with depression severity. Another meta-analysis on 5-HTT including both post-mortem and in vivo receptor binding studies reported that while in vivo studies found reduced 5-HTT in the striatum, amygdala and midbrain, post mortem studies found no significant associations. 5-HT1A was found to be reduced in the anterior cingulate cortex, mesiotemporal lobe, insula, and hippocampus, but not in the amygdala or occipital lobe. The most commonly used 5-HT1A ligands are not displaced by endogenous serotonin, indicating that receptor density or affinity is reduced. Dopamine transporter binding is not changed in depression.
Emotional Processing and Neural Circuits
People with MDD show a number of biases in emotional processing, such as a tendency to rate happy faces more negatively, and a tendency to allocate more attentional resources to sad expressions. Depressed people also have impaired recognition of happy, angry, disgusted, fearful and surprised, but not sad faces. Functional neuroimaging has demonstrated hyperactivity of various brain regions in response to negative emotional stimuli, and hypoactivity in response to positive stimuli. One meta analysis reported that depressed subjects showed decreased activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and increased activity in the amygdala in response to negative stimuli. Another meta analysis reported elevated hippocampus and thalamus activity in a subgroup of depressed subjects who were medication naïve, not elderly, and had no comorbidities. The therapeutic lag of antidepressants has been suggested to be a result of antidepressants modifying emotional processing leading to mood changes. This is supported by the observation that both acute and sub-chronic SSRI administration increases response to positive faces. Antidepressant treatment appears to reverse mood congruent biases in limbic, prefrontal, and fusiform areas. dlPFC response is enhanced and amygdala response is attenuated during processing of negative emotions, the former or which is thought to reflect increased top down regulation. The fusiform gyrus and other visual processing areas respond more strongly to positive stimuli with antidepressant treatment, which is thought to reflect the a positive processing bias. These effects do not appear to be unique to serotonergic or noradrenergic antidepressants, but also occur in other forms of treatment such as deep brain stimulation.
One meta analysis of functional neuroimaging in depression observed a pattern of abnormal neural activity hypothesized to reflect an emotional processing bias. Relative to controls, people with MDD showed hyperactivity of circuits in the salience network (SN), composed of the pulvinar nuclei, the insula, and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), as well as decreased activity in regulatory circuits composed of the striatum and dlPFC.
A neuroanatomical model called the limbic-cortical model has been proposed to explain early biological findings in depression. The model attempts to relate specific symptoms of depression to neurological abnormalities. Elevated resting amygdala activity was proposed to underlie rumination, as stimulation of the amygdala has been reported to be associated with the intrusive recall of negative memories. The ACC was divided into pregenual (pgACC) and subgenual regions (sgACC), with the former being electrophysiologically associated with fear, and the latter being metabolically implicated in sadness in healthy subjects. Hyperactivity of the lateral orbitofrontal and insular regions, along with abnormalities in lateral prefrontal regions was suggested to underlie maladaptive emotional responses, given the regions roles in reward learning. This model and another termed “the cortical striatal model”, which focused more on abnormalities in the cortico-basal ganglia-thalamo-cortical loop, have been supported by recent literature. Reduced striatal activity, elevated OFC activity, and elevated sgACC activity were all findings consistent with the proposed models. However, amygdala activity was reported to be decreased, contrary to the limbic-cortical model. Furthermore, only lateral prefrontal regions were modulated by treatment, indicating that prefrontal areas are state markers (i.e. dependent upon mood), while subcortical abnormalities are trait markers (i.e. reflect a susceptibility).
While depression severity as a whole is not correlated with a blunted neural response to reward, anhedonia is directly correlated to reduced activity in the reward system. The study of reward in depression is limited by heterogeneity in the definition and conceptualisations of reward and anhedonia. Anhedonia is broadly defined as a reduced ability to feel pleasure, but questionnaires and clinical assessments rarely distinguish between motivational “wanting” and consummatory “liking”. While a number of studies suggest that depressed subjects rate positive stimuli less positively and as less arousing, a number of studies fail to find a difference. Furthermore, response to natural rewards such as sucrose does not appear to be attenuated. General affective blunting may explain “anhedonic” symptoms in depression, as meta analysis of both positive and negative stimuli reveal reduced rating of intensity. As anhedonia is a prominent symptom of depression, direct comparison of depressed with healthy subjects reveals increased activation of the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC), and reduced activation of the ventral striatum, and in particular the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) in response to positive stimuli. Although the finding of reduced NAcc activity during reward paradigms is fairly consistent, the NAcc is made up of a functionally diverse range of neurons, and reduced blood-oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) signal in this region could indicate a variety of things including reduced afferent activity or reduced inhibitory output. Nevertheless, these regions are important in reward processing, and dysfunction of them in depression is thought to underlie anhedonia. Residual anhedonia that is not well targeted by serotonergic antidepressants is hypothesized to result from inhibition of dopamine release by activation of 5-HT2C receptors in the striatum. The response to reward in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is attenuated in depression, while lateral OFC response is enhanced to punishment. The lateral OFC shows sustained response to absence of reward or punishment, and it is thought to be necessary for modifying behaviour in response to changing contingencies. Hypersensitivity in the lOFC may lead to depression by producing a similar effect to learned helplessness in animals.
Elevated response in the sgACC is a consistent finding in neuroimaging studies using a number of paradigms including reward related tasks. Treatment is also associated with attenuated activity in the sgACC, and inhibition of neurons in the rodent homologue of the sgACC, the infralimbic cortex (IL), produces an antidepressant effect. Hyperactivity of the sgACC has been hypothesized to lead to depression via attenuating the somatic response to reward or positive stimuli. Contrary to studies of functional magnetic resonance imaging response in the sgACC during tasks, resting metabolism is reduced in the sgACC. However, this is only apparent when correcting for the prominent reduction in sgACC volume associated with depression; structural abnormalities are evident at a cellular level, as neuropathological studies report reduced sgACC cell markers. The model of depression proposed from these findings by Drevets et al. suggests that reduced sgACC activity results in enhanced sympathetic nervous system activity and blunted HPA axis feedback. Activity in the sgACC may also not be causal in depression, as the authors of one review that examined neuroimaging in depressed subjects during emotional regulation hypothesized that the pattern of elevated sgACC activity reflected increased need to modulate automatic emotional responses in depression. More extensive sgACC and general prefrontal recruitment during positive emotional processing was associated with blunted subcortical response to positive emotions, and subject anhedonia. This was interpreted by the authors to reflect a downregulation of positive emotions by the excessive recruitment of the prefrontal cortex.
While a number of neuroimaging findings are consistently reported in people with major depressive disorder, the heterogeneity of depressed populations presents difficulties interpreting these findings. For example, averaging across populations may hide certain subgroup related findings; while reduced dlPFC activity is reported in depression, a subgroup may present with elevated dlPFC activity. Averaging may also yield statistically significant findings, such as reduced hippocampal volumes, that are actually present in a subgroup of subjects. Due to these issues and others, including the longitudinal consistency of depression, most neural models are likely inapplicable to all depression.
Meta analyses performed using seed-based d mapping have reported grey matter reductions in a number of frontal regions. One meta analysis of early onset general depression reported grey matter reductions in the bilateral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC). One meta analysis on first episode depression observed distinct patterns of grey matter reductions in medication free, and combined populations; medication free depression was associated with reductions in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, right amygdala, and right inferior temporal gyrus; analysis on a combination of medication free and medicated depression found reductions in the left insula, right supplementary motor area, and right middle temporal gyrus. Another review distinguishing medicated and medication free populations, albeit not restricted to people with their first episode of MDD, found reductions in the combined population in the bilateral superior, right middle, and left inferior frontal gyrus, along with the bilateral parahippocampus. Increases in thalamic and ACC grey matter was reported in the medication free and medicated populations respectively. A meta analysis performed using “activation likelihood estimate” reported reductions in the paracingulate cortex, dACC and amygdala.
Using statistical parametric mapping, one meta analysis replicated previous findings of reduced grey matter in the ACC, medial prefrontal cortex, inferior frontal gyrus, hippocampus and thalamus; however reductions in the OFC and ventromedial prefrontal cortex grey matter were also reported.
Two studies on depression from the ENIGMA consortium have been published, one on cortical thickness, and the other on subcortical volume. Reduced cortical thickness was reported in the bilateral OFC, ACC, insula, middle temporal gyri, fusiform gyri, and posterior cingulate cortices, while surface area deficits were found in medial occipital, inferior parietal, orbitofrontal and precentral regions. Subcortical abnormalities, including reductions in hippocampus and amygdala volumes, which were especially pronounced in early onset depression.
Multiple meta analysis have been performed on studies assessing white matter integrity using fractional anisotropy (FA). Reduced FA has been reported in the corpus callosum (CC) in both first episode medication naïve, and general major depressive populations. The extent of CC reductions differs from study to study. People with MDD who have not taken antidepressants before have been reported to have reductions only in the body of the CC and only in the genu of the CC. On the other hand, general MDD samples have been reported to have reductions in the body of the CC, the body and genu of the CC, and only the genu of the CC. Reductions of FA have also been reported in the anterior limb of the internal capsule (ALIC) and superior longitudinal fasciculus.
Studies of resting state activity have utilised a number of indicators of resting state activity, including regional homogeneity (ReHO), amplitude of low frequency fluctuations (ALFF), fractional amplitude of low frequency fluctuations (fALFF), arterial spin labelling (ASL), and positron emission tomography measures of regional cerebral blood flow or metabolism.
Studies using ALFF and fALFF have reported elevations in ACC activity, with the former primarily reporting more ventral findings, and the latter more dorsal findings. A conjunction analysis of ALFF and CBF studies converged on the left insula, with previously untreated people having increased insula activity. Elevated caudate CBF was also reported A meta analysis combining multiple indicators of resting activity reported elevated anterior cingulate, striatal, and thalamic activity and reduced left insula, post-central gyrus and fusiform gyrus activity. An activation likelihood estimate (ALE) meta analysis of PET/SPECT resting state studies reported reduced activity in the left insula, pregenual and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and elevated activity in the thalamus, caudate, anterior hippocampus and amygdala. Compared to the ALE meta analysis of PET/SPECT studies, a study using multi-kernel density analysis reported hyperactivity only in the pulvinar nuclei of the thalamus.
Research on the brains of people with MDD usually shows disturbed patterns of interaction between multiple parts of the brain. Several areas of the brain are implicated in studies seeking to more fully understand the biology of depression:
Studies have shown that Brodmann area 25, also known as subgenual cingulate, is metabolically overactive in treatment-resistant depression. This region is extremely rich in serotonin transporters and is considered as a governor for a vast network involving areas like hypothalamus and brain stem, which influences changes in appetite and sleep; the amygdala and insula, which affect the mood and anxiety; the hippocampus, which plays an important role in memory formation; and some parts of the frontal cortex responsible for self-esteem. Thus disturbances in this area or a smaller than normal size of this area contributes to depression. Deep brain stimulation has been targeted to this region in order to reduce its activity in people with treatment resistant depression.
One review reported hypoactivity in the prefrontal cortex of those with depression compared to controls. The prefrontal cortex is involved in emotional processing and regulation, and dysfunction of this process may be involved in the aetiology of depression. One study on antidepressant treatment found an increase in PFC activity in response to administration of antidepressants. One meta analysis published in 2012 found that areas of the prefrontal cortex were hypoactive in response to negative stimuli in people with MDD. One study suggested that areas of the prefrontal cortex are part of a network of regions including dorsal and pregenual cingulate, bilateral middle frontal gyrus, insula and superior temporal gyrus that appear to be hypoactive in people with MDD. However the authors cautioned that the exclusion criteria, lack of consistency and small samples limit results.
The amygdala, a structure involved in emotional processing appears to be hyperactive in those with major depressive disorder. The amygdala in unmedicated depressed persons tended to be smaller than in those that were medicated, however aggregate data shows no difference between depressed and healthy persons. During emotional processing tasks right amygdala is more active than the left, however there is no differences during cognitive tasks, and at rest only the left amygdala appears to be more hyperactive. One study, however, found no difference in amygdala activity during emotional processing tasks.
Atrophy of the hippocampus has been observed during depression, consistent with animal models of stress and neurogenesis.
Stress can cause depression and depression-like symptoms through monoaminergic changes in several key brain regions as well as suppression in hippocampal neurogenesis. This leads to alteration in emotion and cognition related brain regions as well as HPA axis dysfunction. Through the dysfunction, the effects of stress can be exacerbated including its effects on 5-HT. Furthermore, some of these effects are reversed by antidepressant action, which may act by increasing hippocampal neurogenesis. This leads to a restoration in HPA activity and stress reactivity, thus restoring the deleterious effects induced by stress on 5-HT.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is a chain of endocrine structures that are activated during the body’s response to stressors of various sorts. The HPA axis involves three structure, the hypothalamus which release CRH that stimulates the pituitary gland to release ACTH which stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Cortisol has a negative feedback effect on the pituitary gland and hypothalamus. In people with MDD this often shows increased activation in depressed people, but the mechanism behind this is not yet known. Increased basal cortisol levels and abnormal response to dexamethasone challenges have been observed in people with MDD. Early life stress has been hypothesized as a potential cause of HPA dysfunction. HPA axis regulation may be examined through a dexamethasone suppression tests, which tests the feedback mechanisms. Non-suppression of dexamethasone is a common finding in depression, but is not consistent enough to be used as a diagnostic tool. HPA axis changes may be responsible for some of the changes such as decreased bone mineral density and increased weight found in people with MDD. One drug, ketoconazole, currently under development has shown promise in treating MDD.
Reduced hippocampal neurogenesis leads to a reduction in hippocampal volume. A genetically smaller hippocampus has been linked to a reduced ability to process psychological trauma and external stress, and subsequent predisposition to psychological illness. Depression without familial risk or childhood trauma has been linked to a normal hippocampal volume but localised dysfunction.
A number of animal models exist for depression, but they are limited in that depression involves primarily subjective emotional changes. However, some of these changes are reflected in physiology and behaviour, the latter of which is the target of many animal models. These models are generally assessed according to four facets of validity; the reflection of the core symptoms in the model; the predictive validity of the model; the validity of the model with regard to human characteristics of aetiology; and the biological plausibility.
Different models for inducing depressive behaviours have been utilised; neuroanatomical manipulations such as olfactory bulbectomy or circuit specific manipulations with optogenetics; genetic models such as 5-HT1A knockout or selectively bred animals; models involving environmental manipulation associated with depression in humans, including chronic mild stress, early life stress and learned helplessness. The validity of these models in producing depressive behaviours may be assessed with a number of behavioural tests. Anhedonia and motivational deficits may, for example, be assessed via examining an animal’s level of engagement with rewarding stimuli such as sucrose or intracranial self-stimulation. Anxious and irritable symptoms may be assessed with exploratory behaviour in the presence of a stressful or novelty environment, such as the open field test, novelty suppressed feeding, or the elevated plus-maze. Fatigue, psychomotor poverty, and agitation may be assessed with locomotor activity, grooming activity, and open field tests.
Animal models possess a number of limitations due to the nature of depression. Some core symptoms of depression, such as rumination, low self-esteem, guilt, and depressed mood cannot be assessed in animals as they require subjective reporting. From an evolutionary standpoint, the behaviour correlates of defeats of loss are thought to be an adaptive response to prevent further loss. Therefore, attempts to model depression that seeks to induce defeat or despair may actually reflect adaption and not disease. Furthermore, while depression and anxiety are frequently comorbid, dissociation of the two in animal models is difficult to achieve. Pharmacological assessment of validity is frequently disconnected from clinical pharmacotherapeutics in that most screening tests assess acute effects, while antidepressants normally take a few weeks to work in humans.
Regions involved in reward are common targets of manipulation in animal models of depression, including the nucleus accumbens (NAc), ventral tegmental area (VTA), ventral pallidum (VP), lateral habenula (LHb) and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). Tentative fMRI studies in humans demonstrate elevated LHb activity in depression. The lateral habenula projects to the RMTg to drive inhibition of dopamine neurons in the VTA during omission of reward. In animal models of depression, elevated activity has been reported in LHb neurons that project to the ventral tegmental area (ostensibly reducing dopamine release). The LHb also projects to aversion reactive mPFC neurons, which may provide an indirect mechanism for producing depressive behaviours. Learned helplessness induced potentiation of LHb synapses are reversed by antidepressant treatment, providing predictive validity. A number of inputs to the LHb have been implicated in producing depressive behaviours. Silencing GABAergic projections from the NAc to the LHb reduces conditioned place preference induced in social aggression, and activation of these terminals induces CPP. Ventral pallidum firing is also elevated by stress induced depression, an effect that is pharmacologically valid, and silencing of these neurons alleviates behavioural correlates of depression. Tentative in vivo evidence from people with MDD suggests abnormalities in dopamine signalling. This led to early studies investigating VTA activity and manipulations in animal models of depression. Massive destruction of VTA neurons enhances depressive behaviours, while VTA neurons reduce firing in response to chronic stress. However, more recent specific manipulations of the VTA produce varying results, with the specific animal model, duration of VTA manipulation, method of VTA manipulation, and subregion of VTA manipulation all potentially leading to differential outcomes. Stress and social defeat induced depressive symptoms, including anhedonia, are associated with potentiation of excitatory inputs to Dopamine D2 receptor-expressing medium spiny neurons (D2-MSNs) and depression of excitatory inputs to Dopamine D1 receptor-expressing medium spiny neurons (D1-MSNs). Optogenetic excitation of D1-MSNs alleviates depressive symptoms and is rewarding, while the same with D2-MSNs enhances depressive symptoms. Excitation of glutaminergic inputs from the ventral hippocampus reduces social interactions, and enhancing these projections produces susceptibility to stress-induced depression. Manipulations of different regions of the mPFC can produce and attenuate depressive behaviours. For example, inhibiting mPFC neurons specifically in the intralimbic cortex attenuates depressive behaviours. The conflicting findings associated with mPFC stimulation, when compared to the relatively specific findings in the infralimbic cortex, suggest that the prelimbic cortex and infralimbic cortex may mediate opposing effects. mPFC projections to the raphe nuclei are largely GABAergic and inhibit the firing of serotonergic neurons. Specific activation of these regions reduce immobility in the forced swim test but do not affect open field or forced swim behaviour. Inhibition of the raphe shifts the behavioural phenotype of uncontrolled stress to a phenotype closer to that of controlled stress.
Recent studies have called attention to the role of altered neuroplasticity in depression. A review found a convergence of three phenomena:
Chronic stress reduces synaptic and dendritic plasticity;
Depressed subjects show evidence of impaired neuroplasticity (e.g. shortening and reduced complexity of dendritic trees); and
Anti-depressant medications may enhance neuroplasticity at both a molecular and dendritic level.
The conclusion is that disrupted neuroplasticity is an underlying feature of depression, and is reversed by antidepressants.
Blood levels of BDNF in people with MDD increase significantly with antidepressant treatment and correlate with decrease in symptoms. Post mortem studies and rat models demonstrate decreased neuronal density in the prefrontal cortex thickness in people with MDD. Rat models demonstrate histological changes consistent with MRI findings in humans, however studies on neurogenesis in humans are limited. Antidepressants appear to reverse the changes in neurogenesis in both animal models and humans.
Various reviews have found that general inflammation may play a role in depression. One meta analysis of cytokines in people with MDD found increased levels of pro-inflammatory IL-6 and TNF-a levels relative to controls. The first theories came about when it was noticed that interferon therapy caused depression in a large number of people receiving it. Meta analysis on cytokine levels in people with MDD have demonstrated increased levels of IL-1, IL-6, C-reactive protein, but not IL-10. Increased numbers of T-Cells presenting activation markers, levels of neopterin, IFN gamma, sTNFR, and IL-2 receptors have been observed in depression. Various sources of inflammation in depressive illness have been hypothesized and include trauma, sleep problems, diet, smoking and obesity. Cytokines, by manipulating neurotransmitters, are involved in the generation of sickness behaviour, which shares some overlap with the symptoms of depression. Neurotransmitters hypothesized to be affected include dopamine and serotonin, which are common targets for antidepressant drugs. Induction of indolamine-2,3 dioxygenease by cytokines has been proposed as a mechanism by which immune dysfunction causes depression. One review found normalization of cytokine levels after successful treatment of depression. A meta analysis published in 2014 found the use of anti-inflammatory drugs such as NSAIDs and investigational cytokine inhibitors reduced depressive symptoms. Exercise can act as a stressor, decreasing the levels of IL-6 and TNF-a and increasing those of IL-10, an anti-inflammatory cytokine.
Inflammation is also intimately linked with metabolic processes in humans. For example, low levels of Vitamin D have been associated with greater risk for depression. The role of metabolic biomarkers in depression is an active research area. Recent work has explored the potential relationship between plasma sterols and depressive symptom severity.
A marker of DNA oxidation, 8-Oxo-2′-deoxyguanosine, has been found to be increased in both the plasma and urine of people with MDD. This along with the finding of increased F2-isoprostanes levels found in blood, urine and cerebrospinal fluid indicate increased damage to lipids and DNA in people with MDD. Studies with 8-Oxo-2′ Deoxyguanosine varied by methods of measurement and type of depression, but F2-Isoprostane level was consistent across depression types. Authors suggested lifestyle factors, dysregulation of the HPA axis, immune system and autonomics nervous system as possible causes. Another meta-analysis found similar results with regards to oxidative damage products as well as decreased oxidative capacity. Oxidative DNA damage may play a role in MDD.
Increased markers of oxidative stress relative to controls have been found in people with MDD. These markers include high levels of RNS and ROS which have been shown to influence chronic inflammation, damaging the electron transport chain and biochemical cascades in mitochondria. This lowers the activity of enzymes in the respiratory chain resulting in mitochondrial dysfunction. The brain is a highly energy-consuming and has little capacity to store glucose as glycogen and so depends greatly on mitochondria. Mitochondrial dysfunction has been linked to the dampened neuroplasticity observed in depressed brains.
Large-Scale Brain Network Theory
Instead of studying one brain region, studying large scale brain networks is another approach to understanding psychiatric and neurological disorders, supported by recent research that has shown that multiple brain regions are involved in these disorders. Understanding the disruptions in these networks may provide important insights into interventions for treating these disorders. Recent work suggests that at least three large-scale brain networks are important in psychopathology.
Central Executive Network
The central executive network is made up of fronto-parietal regions, including dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and lateral posterior parietal cortex. This network is involved in high level cognitive functions such as maintaining and using information in working memory, problem solving, and decision making. Deficiencies in this network are common in most major psychiatric and neurological disorders, including depression. Because this network is crucial for everyday life activities, those who are depressed can show impairment in basic activities like test taking and being decisive.
Default Mode Network
The default mode network includes hubs in the prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate, with other prominent regions of the network in the medial temporal lobe and angular gyrus. The default mode network is usually active during mind-wandering and thinking about social situations. In contrast, during specific tasks probed in cognitive science (for example, simple attention tasks), the default network is often deactivated. Research has shown that regions in the default mode network (including medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate) show greater activity when depressed participants ruminate (that is, when they engage in repetitive self-focused thinking) than when typical, healthy participants ruminate. People with MDD also show increased connectivity between the default mode network and the subgenual cingulate and the adjoining ventromedial prefrontal cortex in comparison to healthy individuals, individuals with dementia or with autism. Numerous studies suggest that the subgenual cingulate plays an important role in the dysfunction that characterizes major depression. The increased activation in the default mode network during rumination and the atypical connectivity between core default mode regions and the subgenual cingulate may underlie the tendency for depressed individual to get “stuck” in the negative, self-focused thoughts that often characterise depression. However, further research is needed to gain a precise understanding of how these network interactions map to specific symptoms of depression.
The salience network is a cingulate-frontal operculum network that includes core nodes in the anterior cingulate and anterior insula. A salience network is a large-scale brain network involved in detecting and orienting the most pertinent of the external stimuli and internal events being presented. Individuals who have a tendency to experience negative emotional states (scoring high on measures of neuroticism) show an increase in the right anterior insula during decision-making, even if the decision has already been made. This atypically high activity in the right anterior insula is thought to contribute to the experience of negative and worrisome feelings. In MDD, anxiety is often a part of the emotional state that characterises depression.
Physical dependence is a physical condition caused by chronic use of a tolerance-forming drug, in which abrupt or gradual drug withdrawal causes unpleasant physical symptoms.
Physical dependence can develop from low-dose therapeutic use of certain medications such as benzodiazepines, opioids, antiepileptics and antidepressants, as well as the recreational misuse of drugs such as alcohol, opioids and benzodiazepines. The higher the dose used, the greater the duration of use, and the earlier age use began are predictive of worsened physical dependence and thus more severe withdrawal syndromes.
Acute withdrawal syndromes can last days, weeks or months. Protracted withdrawal syndrome, also known as post-acute-withdrawal syndrome or “PAWS”, is a low-grade continuation of some of the symptoms of acute withdrawal, typically in a remitting-relapsing pattern, often resulting in relapse and prolonged disability of a degree to preclude the possibility of lawful employment. Protracted withdrawal syndrome can last for months, years, or depending on individual factors, indefinitely. Protracted withdrawal syndrome is noted to be most often caused by benzodiazepines. To dispel the popular mis-association with addiction, physical dependence to medications is sometimes compared to dependence on insulin by persons with diabetes.
Physical dependence can manifest itself in the appearance of both physical and psychological symptoms which are caused by physiological adaptions in the central nervous system and the brain due to chronic exposure to a substance. Symptoms which may be experienced during withdrawal or reduction in dosage include increased heart rate and/or blood pressure, sweating, and tremors. More serious withdrawal symptoms such as confusion, seizures, and visual hallucinations indicate a serious emergency and the need for immediate medical care.
Sedative hypnotic drugs such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates are the only commonly available substances that can be fatal in withdrawal due to their propensity to induce withdrawal convulsions. Abrupt withdrawal from other drugs, such as opioids can cause an extremely painful withdrawal that is very rarely fatal in patients of general good health and with medical treatment, but is more often fatal in patients with weakened cardiovascular systems; toxicity is generally caused by the often-extreme increases in heart rate and blood pressure (which can be treated with clonidine), or due to arrhythmia due to electrolyte imbalance caused by the inability to eat, and constant diarrhoea and vomiting (which can be treated with loperamide and ondansetron respectively) associated with acute opioid withdrawal, especially in longer-acting substances where the diarrhoea and emesis can continue unabated for weeks, although life-threatening complications are extremely rare, and nearly non-existent with proper medical management.
Treatment for physical dependence depends upon the drug being withdrawn and often includes administration of another drug, especially for substances that can be dangerous when abruptly discontinued or when previous attempts have failed. Physical dependence is usually managed by a slow dose reduction over a period of weeks, months or sometimes longer depending on the drug, dose and the individual. A physical dependence on alcohol is often managed with a cross tolerant drug, such as long acting benzodiazepines to manage the alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Drugs That Cause Physical Dependence
All µ-opioids with any (even slight) agonist effect, such as (partial list) morphine, heroin, codeine, oxycodone, buprenorphine, nalbuphine, methadone, and fentanyl, but not agonists specific to non-µ opioid receptors, such as salvinorin A (a k-opioid agonist), nor opioid antagonists or inverse agonists, such as naltrexone (a universal opioid inverse agonist).
All GABA agonists and positive allosteric modulators of both the GABA-A ionotropic receptor and GABA-B metabotropic receptor subunits, including (partial list):
A wide range of drugs whilst not causing a true physical dependence can still cause withdrawal symptoms or rebound effects during dosage reduction or especially abrupt or rapid withdrawal. These can include caffeine, stimulants, steroidal drugs and antiparkinsonian drugs. It is debated whether the entire antipsychotic drug class causes true physical dependency, a subset, or if none do. But, if discontinued too rapidly, it could cause an acute withdrawal syndrome. When talking about illicit drugs rebound withdrawal, especially with stimulants, it is sometimes referred to as “coming down” or “crashing”.
Some drugs, like anticonvulsants and antidepressants, describe the drug category and not the mechanism. The individual agents and drug classes in the anticonvulsant drug category act at many different receptors and it is not possible to generalise their potential for physical dependence or incidence or severity of rebound syndrome as a group so they must be looked at individually. Anticonvulsants as a group however are known to cause tolerance to the anti-seizure effect. SSRI drugs, which have an important use as antidepressants, engender a discontinuation syndrome that manifests with physical side effects; e.g. there have been case reports of a discontinuation syndrome with venlafaxine (Effexor).
Reduced affect display, sometimes referred to as emotional blunting, is a condition of reduced emotional reactivity in an individual.
It manifests as a failure to express feelings (affect display) either verbally or nonverbally, especially when talking about issues that would normally be expected to engage the emotions. Expressive gestures are rare and there is little animation in facial expression or vocal inflection. Reduced affect can be symptomatic of autism, schizophrenia, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, depersonalisation disorder, schizoid personality disorder or brain damage. It may also be a side effect of certain medications (e.g. antipsychotics and antidepressants).
Reduced affect should be distinguished from apathy and anhedonia, which explicitly refer to a lack of emotion, whereas reduced affect is a lack of emotional expression (affect display) regardless of whether emotion (underlying affect) is actually reduced or not.
A restricted or constricted affect is a reduction in an individual’s expressive range and the intensity of emotional responses.
Blunted and Flat Affect
Blunted affect is a lack of affect more severe than restricted or constricted affect, but less severe than flat or flattened affect. “The difference between flat and blunted affect is in degree. A person with flat affect has no or nearly no emotional expression. They may not react at all to circumstances that usually evoke strong emotions in others. A person with blunted affect, on the other hand, has a significantly reduced intensity in emotional expression”.
Shallow affect has equivalent meaning to blunted affect. Factor 1 of the Psychopathy Checklist identifies shallow affect as a common attribute of psychopathy.
Individuals with schizophrenia with blunted affect show different regional brain activity in fMRI scans when presented with emotional stimuli compared to individuals with schizophrenia without blunted affect. Individuals with schizophrenia without blunted affect show activation in the following brain areas when shown emotionally negative pictures: midbrain, pons, anterior cingulate cortex, insula, ventrolateral orbitofrontal cortex, anterior temporal pole, amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex, and extrastriate visual cortex. Individuals with schizophrenia with blunted affect show activation in the following brain regions when shown emotionally negative pictures: midbrain, pons, anterior temporal pole, and extrastriate visual cortex.
Individuals with schizophrenia with flat affect show decreased activation in the limbic system when viewing emotional stimuli. In individuals with schizophrenia with blunted affect neural processes begin in the occipitotemporal region of the brain and go through the ventral visual pathway and the limbic structures until they reach the inferior frontal areas. Damage to the amygdala of adult rhesus macaques early in life can permanently alter affective processing. Lesioning the amygdala causes blunted affect responses to both positive and negative stimuli. This effect is irreversible in the rhesus macaques; neonatal damage produces the same effect as damage that occurs later in life. The macaques’ brain cannot compensate for early amygdala damage even though significant neuronal growth may occur. There is some evidence that blunted affect symptoms in schizophrenia patients are not a result of just amygdala responsiveness, but a result of the amygdala not being integrated with other areas of the brain associated with emotional processing, particularly in amygdala-prefrontal cortex coupling. Damage in the limbic region prevents the amygdala from correctly interpreting emotional stimuli in individuals with schizophrenia by compromising the link between the amygdala and other brain regions associated with emotion.
Parts of the brainstem are responsible for passive emotional coping strategies that are characterised by disengagement or withdrawal from the external environment (quiescence, immobility, hyporeactivity), similar to what is seen in blunted affect. Individuals with schizophrenia with blunted affect show activation of the brainstem during fMRI scans, particularly the right medulla and the left pons, when shown “sad” film excerpts. The bilateral midbrain is also activated in individuals with schizophrenia diagnosed with blunted affect. Activation of the midbrain is thought to be related to autonomic responses associated with perceptual processing of emotional stimuli. This region usually becomes activated in diverse emotional states. When the connectivity between the midbrain and the medial prefrontal cortex is compromised in individuals with schizophrenia with blunted affect an absence of emotional reaction to external stimuli results.
Individuals with schizophrenia, as well as patients being successfully reconditioned with quetiapine for blunted affect, show activation of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Failure to activate the PFC is possibly involved in impaired emotional processing in individuals with schizophrenia with blunted affect. The mesial PFC is activated in aver individuals in response to external emotional stimuli. This structure possibly receives information from the limbic structures to regulate emotional experiences and behaviour. Individuals being reconditioned with quetiapine, who show reduced symptoms, show activation in other areas of the PFC as well, including the right medial prefrontal gyrus and the left orbitofrontal gyrus.
Anterior Cingulate Cortex
A positive correlation has been found between activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and the reported magnitude of sad feelings evoked by viewing sad film excerpts. The rostral subdivision of this region is possibly involved in detecting emotional signals. This region is different in individuals with schizophrenia with blunted affect.
Flat and blunted affect is a defining characteristic in the presentation of schizophrenia. To reiterate, these individuals have a decrease in observed vocal and facial expression as well as the use of gestures. One study of flat affect in schizophrenia found that “flat affect was more common in men, and was associated with worse current quality of life” as well as having “an adverse effect on course of illness”.
The study also reported a “dissociation between reported experience of emotion and its display” – supporting the suggestion made elsewhere that “blunted affect, including flattened facial expressiveness and lack of vocal inflection … often disguises an individual’s true feelings.” Thus, feelings may merely be unexpressed, rather than totally lacking. On the other hand, “a lack of emotions which is due not to mere repression but to a real loss of contact with the objective world gives the observer a specific impression of ‘queerness’ … the remainders of emotions or the substitutes for emotions usually refer to rage and aggressiveness”. In the most extreme cases, there is a complete “dissociation from affective states”. To further support this idea, a study examining emotion dysregulation found that individuals with schizophrenia could not exaggerate their emotional expression as healthy controls could. Participants were asked to express whatever emotions they had during a clip of a film, and the participants with schizophrenia showed deficits in behavioural expression of their emotions.
There is still some debate regarding the source of flat affect in schizophrenia. However, some literature indicates abnormalities in the dorsal executive and ventral affective systems; it is argued that dorsal hypoactivation and ventral hyperactivation may be the source of flat affect. Further, the authors found deficits in the mirror neuron system may also contribute to flat affect in that the deficits may cause disruptions in the control of facial expression.
Another study found that when speaking, individuals with schizophrenia with flat affect demonstrate less inflection than normal controls and appear to be less fluent. Normal subjects appear to express themselves using more complex syntax, whereas flat affect subjects speak with fewer words, and fewer words per sentence. Flat affect individuals’ use of context-appropriate words in both sad and happy narratives are similar to that of controls. It is very likely that flat affect is a result of deficits in motor expression as opposed to emotional processing. The moods of display are compromised, but subjective, autonomic, and contextual aspects of emotion are left intact.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was previously known to cause negative feelings, such as depressed mood, re-experiencing and hyperarousal. However, recently, psychologists have started to focus their attention on the blunted affects and also the decrease in feeling and expressing positive emotions in PTSD patients. Blunted affect, or emotional numbness, is considered one of the consequences of PTSD because it causes a diminished interest in activities that produce pleasure (anhedonia) and produces feelings of detachment from others, restricted emotional expression and a reduced tendency to express emotions behaviourally. Blunted affect is often seen in veterans as a consequence of the psychological stressful experiences that caused PTSD. Blunted affect is a response to PTSD, it is considered one of the central symptoms in post-traumatic stress disorders and it is often seen in veterans who served in combat zones. In PTSD, blunted affect can be considered a psychological response to PTSD as a way to combat overwhelming anxiety that the patients feel. In blunted affect, there are abnormalities in circuits that also include the prefrontal cortex.
In making assessments of mood and affect the clinician is cautioned that “it is important to keep in mind that demonstrative expression can be influenced by cultural differences, medication, or situational factors”; while the layperson is warned to beware of applying the criterion lightly to “friends, otherwise [he or she] is likely to make false judgments, in view of the prevalence of schizoid and cyclothymic personalities in our ‘normal’ population, and our [US] tendency to psychological hypochondriasis”.
R.D. Laing in particular stressed that “such ‘clinical’ categories as schizoid, autistic, ‘impoverished’ affect … all presuppose that there are reliable, valid impersonal criteria for making attributions about the other person’s relation to [his or her] actions. There are no such reliable or valid criteria”.
Blunted affect is very similar to anhedonia, which is the decrease or cessation of all feelings of pleasure (which thus affects enjoyment, happiness, fun, interest, and satisfaction). In the case of anhedonia, emotions relating to pleasure will not be expressed as much or at all because they are literally not experienced or are decreased. Both blunted affect and anhedonia are considered negative symptoms of schizophrenia, meaning that they are indicative of a lack of something. There are some other negative symptoms of schizophrenia which include avolition, alogia and catatonic behaviour.
Closely related is alexithymia – a condition describing people who “lack words for their feelings. They seem to lack feelings altogether, although this may actually be because of their inability to express emotion rather than from an absence of emotion altogether”. Alexithymic patients however can provide clues via assessment presentation which may be indicative of emotional arousal.
“If the amygdala is severed from the rest of the brain, the result is a striking inability to gauge the emotional significance of events; this condition is sometimes called ‘affective blindness'”. In some cases, blunted affect can fade, but there is no conclusive evidence of why this can occur.
Atypical antidepressants include agomelatine, bupropion, mianserin, mirtazapine, nefazodone, opipramol, tianeptine, and trazodone. The agents vilazodone and vortioxetine are partly atypical. Typical antidepressants include the SSRIs, SNRIs, TCAs, and MAOIs, which act mainly by increasing the levels of the monoamine neurotransmitters serotonin and/or norepinephrine. Among TCAs, trimipramine is an atypical agent in that it appears not to do this. In August 2020, Esketamine (JNJ-54135419) was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment for treatment-resistant depression with the added indication for the short-term treatment of suicidal thoughts.
Buprenorphine/Samidorphan (ALKS-5461) is an antidepressant with a novel mechanism of action which is under development and is considered an atypical antidepressant. They act faster than available antidepressants.
The second-generation antidepressants are a class of antidepressants characterised primarily by the era of their introduction, approximately coinciding with the 1970s and 1980s, rather than by their chemical structure or by their pharmacological effect. As a consequence, there is some controversy over which treatments actually belong in this class.
The emphasis of the treatment of bipolar disorder is on effective management of the long-term course of the illness, which can involve treatment of emergent symptoms.
Treatment methods include pharmacological and psychological techniques.
The primary treatment for bipolar disorder consists of medications called mood stabilisers, which are used to prevent or control episodes of mania or depression. Medications from several classes have mood stabilising activity. Many individuals may require a combination of medication to achieve full remission of symptoms. As it is impossible to predict which medication will work best for a particular individual, it may take some trial and error to find the best medication or combination for a specific patient. Psychotherapy also has a role in the treatment of bipolar disorder. The goal of treatment is not to cure the disorder but rather to control the symptoms and the course of the disorder. Generally speaking, maintenance treatment of bipolar disorder continues long after symptom control has been achieved.
Following diagnostic evaluation, the treating clinician must determine the optimal treatment setting in order to ensure the patient’s safety. Assessment of suicide risk is key, as the rate of suicide completion among those with bipolar disorder may be as high as 10-15%. Hospitalisation should be considered in patients whose judgement is significantly impaired by their illness, and those who have not responded to outpatient treatment; this may need to be done on an involuntary basis. Treatment setting should regularly be re-evaluated to ensure that it is optimal for the patient’s needs.
Lithium salts have been used for centuries as a first-line treatment for bipolar disorder. In ancient times, doctors would send their mentally ill patients to drink from “alkali springs” as a treatment. Although they were not aware of it, they were actually prescribing lithium, which was present in high concentration within the waters. The therapeutic effect of lithium salts appears to be entirely due to the lithium ion, Li+.
Its exact mechanism of action is uncertain, although there are several possibilities such as inhibition of inositol monophosphatase, modulation of G proteins or regulation of gene expression for growth factors and neuronal plasticity. There is strong evidence for its effectiveness in acute treatment and prevention of recurrence of mania. It can also be effective in bipolar depression, although the evidence is not as strong. It is also effective in reducing the risk of suicide in patients with mood disorders.
Potential side effects from lithium include gastrointestinal upset, tremor, sedation, excessive thirst, frequent urination, cognitive problems, impaired motor coordination, hair loss, and acne. Excessive levels of lithium can be harmful to the kidneys, and increase the risk of side effects in general. As a result, kidney function and blood levels of lithium are monitored in patients being treated with lithium. Therapeutic plasma levels of lithium range from 0.5 to 1.5 mEq/L, with levels of 0.8 or higher being desirable in acute mania.
Lithium levels should be above 0.6 mEq/L to reduce both manic and depressive episodes in patients. A recent review concludes that the standard lithium serum level should be 0.60-0.80 mmol/L with optional reduction to 0.40-0.60 mmol/L in case of good response but poor tolerance or an increase to 0.80-1.00 mmol/L in case of insufficient response and good tolerance.
Monitoring is generally more frequent when lithium is being initiated, and the frequency can be decreased once a patient is stabilised on a given dose. Thyroid hormones should also be monitored periodically, as lithium can increase the risk of hypothyroidism.
A number of anti-convulsant drugs are used as mood stabilisers, and the suspected mechanism is related to the theory that mania can “kindle” further mania, similar to the kindling model of seizures. Valproic acid, or valproate, was one of the first anti-convulsants tested for use in bipolar disorder. It has proven to be effective for treating acute mania. The mania prevention and antidepressant effects of valproic acid have not been well demonstrated. Valproic acid is less effective than lithium at preventing and treating depressive episodes.
Carbamazepine was the first anti-convulsant shown to be effective for treating bipolar mania. It has not been extensively studied in bipolar depression. It is generally considered a second-line agent due to its side effect profile. Lamotrigine is considered a first-line agent for the treatment of bipolar depression. It is effective in preventing the recurrence of both mania and depression, but it has not proved useful in treating acute mania.
Zonisamide (trade name Zonegran), another anti-convulsant, also may show promise in treating bipolar depression. Various other anti-convulsants have been tested in bipolar disorder, but there is little evidence of their effectiveness. Other anti-convulsants effective in some cases and being studied closer include phenytoin, levetiracetam, pregabalin and valnoctamide.
Each anti-convulsant agent has a unique side-effect profile. Valproic acid can frequently cause sedation or gastrointestinal upset, which can be minimised by giving the related drug divalproex, which is available in an enteric-coated tablet. These side effects tend to disappear over time. According to studies conducted in Finland in patients with epilepsy, valproate may increase testosterone levels in teenage girls and produce polycystic ovary syndrome in women who began taking the medication before age 20. Increased testosterone can lead to polycystic ovary syndrome with irregular or absent menses, obesity, and abnormal growth of hair. Therefore, young female patients taking valproate should be monitored carefully by a physician. Excessive levels of valproate can lead to impaired liver function, and liver enzymes and serum valproate level, with a target of 50–125 µg/L, should be monitored periodically.
Side effects of carbamazepine include blurred vision, double vision, ataxia, weight gain, nausea, and fatigue, as well as some rare but serious side effects such as blood dyscrasias, pancreatitis, exfoliative dermatitis, and hepatic failure. Monitoring of liver enzymes, platelets, and blood cell counts are recommended.
Lamotrigine generally has minimal side effects, but the dose must be increased slowly to avoid rashes, including exfoliative dermatitis.
Atypical Antipsychotic Drugs
Antipsychotics work best in the manic phase of bipolar disorder. Second-generation or atypical antipsychotics (including aripiprazole, olanzapine, quetiapine, paliperidone, risperidone, and ziprasidone) have emerged as effective mood stabilisers. The evidence for this is fairly recent, as in 2003 the American Psychiatric Press noted that atypical anti-psychotics should be used as adjuncts to other anti-manic drugs because their mood stabilising properties had not been well established. The mechanism is not well known, but may be related to effects on glutamate activity. Several studies have shown atypical antipsychotics to be effective both as single-agent and adjunctive treatments. Antidepressant effectiveness varies, which may be related to different serotonergic and dopaminergic receptor binding profiles. Quetiapine and the combination of olanzapine and fluoxetine have both demonstrated effectiveness in bipolar depression.
In light of recent evidence, olanzapine (Zyprexa) has been US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved as an effective monotherapy for the maintenance of bipolar disorder. A head-to-head randomised control trial (RCT) in 2005 has also shown olanzapine monotherapy to be just as effective and safe as lithium in prophylaxis.
The atypical antipsychotics differ somewhat in side effect profiles, but most have some risk of sedation, weight gain, and extrapyramidal symptoms (including tremor, stiffness, and restlessness). They may also increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, so metabolic monitoring should be performed regularly, including checks of serum cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose, weight, blood pressure, and waist circumference. Taking antipsychotics for long periods or at high doses can also cause tardive dyskinesia – a sometimes incurable neurological disorder resulting in involuntary, repetitive body movements. The risk of tardive dyskinesia appears to be lower in second-generation antipsychotics than in first-generation antipsychotics but as with first-generation drugs, increases with time spent on medications and in older patients.
A variety of other agents have been tried in bipolar disorder, including benzodiazepines, calcium channel blockers, L-methylfolate, and thyroid hormone. Modafinil (Provigil) and Pramipexole (Mirapex) have been suggested for treating cognitive dysfunction associated with bipolar depression, but evidence supporting their use is quite limited. In addition riluzole, a glutamatergic drug used in ALS has been studied as an adjunct or monotherapy treatment in bipolar depression, with mixed and inconsistent results. The selective oestrogen receptor modulator medication tamoxifen has shown rapid and robust efficacy treating acute mania in bipolar patients. This action is likely due not to tamoxifen’s oestrogen-modulating properties, but due to its secondary action as an inhibitor of protein Kinase C.
Cognitive Effects of Mood Stabilisers
Bipolar patients taking antipsychotics have lower scores on tests of memory and full-scale IQ than patients taking other mood stabilisers. Use of both typical and atypical antipsychotics is associated with risk of cognitive impairment, but the risk is higher for antipsychotics with more sedating effects.
Among bipolar patients taking anticonvulsants, those on lamotrigine have a better cognitive profile than those on carbamazepine, valproate, topiramate, and zonisamide.
Although decreased verbal memory and slowed psychomotor speed are common side effects of lithium use these side effects usually disappear after discontinuation of lithium. Lithium may be protective of cognitive function in the long term since it promotes neurogenesis in the hippocampus and increases grey matter volume in the prefrontal cortex.
Antidepressants should only be used with caution in bipolar disorder, as they may not be effective and may even induce mania. They should not be used alone, but may be considered as an adjunct to lithium.
A recent large-scale study found that severe depression in patients with bipolar disorder responds no better to a combination of antidepressant medications and mood stabilisers than it does to mood stabilisers alone and that antidepressant use does not hasten the emergence of manic symptoms in patients with bipolar disorder.
The concurrent use of an antidepressant and a mood stabiliser, instead of mood stabiliser monotherapy, may lower the risk of further bipolar depressive episodes in patients whose most recent depressive episode has been resolved. However, some studies have also found that antidepressants pose a risk of inducing hypomania or mania, sometimes in individuals with no prior history of mania. Saint John’s Wort, although a naturally occurring compound, is thought to function in a fashion similar to man-made antidepressants, and so unsurprisingly, there are reports that suggest that it can also induce mania. For these reasons, some psychiatrists are hesitant to prescribe antidepressants for the treatment of bipolar disorder unless mood stabilisers have failed to have an effect, however, others feel that antidepressants still have an important role to play in treatment of bipolar disorder.
Side effects vary greatly among different classes of antidepressants.
Antidepressants are helpful in preventing suicides in people suffering from bipolar disorder when they go in for the depressive phase.
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, proof-of-concept study, researchers administered an N-methyl-d-aspartate-receptor antagonist (ketamine) to 18 patients already on treatment with lithium (10 patients) or valproate (8 patients) for bipolar depression. From 40 minutes following intravenous injection of ketamine hydrochloride (0.5 mg/kg), the researchers observed significant improvements in depressive symptoms, as measured by standard tools, that were maintained for up to 3 days, an effect not observed in subjects who received the placebo. Five subjects dropped out of the ketamine study; of these, four were taking valproate and one was being treated with lithium. One patient showed signs of hypomania following ketamine administration and two experienced low mood. This study demonstrates a rapid-onset antidepressant effect of ketamine in a small group of patients with bipolar depression. The authors acknowledged the study’s limitations, including the dissociative disturbances in patients receiving ketamine that could have compromised the study blinding, and they emphasised the need for further research.
A more recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study by the same group found that ketamine treatment resulted in a similarly rapid alleviation of suicidal ideation in 15 patients with bipolar depression.
Ketamine is used as a dissociative anaesthetic, and is a Class C substance in the United Kingdom; as such, it should only be used under the direction of a health professional.
In a single controlled study of twenty one patients, the dopamine D3 receptor agonist pramipexole was found to be highly effective in the treatment of bipolar depression. Treatment was initiated at 0.125 mg t.i.d. and increased at a rate of 0.125 mg t.i.d. to a limit of 4.5 mg qd until the patients’ condition satisfactorily responded to the medication or they could not abide the side effects. The final average dosage was 1.7 mg ± .90 mg qd. The incidence of hypomania in the treatment group was no greater than in the control group.
Certain types of psychotherapy, used in combination with medication, may provide some benefit in the treatment of bipolar disorders. Psychoeducation has been shown to be effective in improving patients’ compliance with their lithium treatment. Evidence of the efficacy of family therapy is not adequate to support unrestricted recommendation of its use. There is “fair support” for the utility of cognitive therapy. Evidence for the efficacy of other psychotherapies is absent or weak, often not being performed under randomised and controlled conditions. Well-designed studies have found interpersonal and social rhythm therapy to be effective.
Although medication and psychotherapy cannot cure the illness, therapy can often be valuable in helping to address the effects of disruptive manic or depressive episodes that have hurt a patient’s career, relationships or self-esteem. Therapy is available not only from psychiatrists but from social workers, psychologists and other licensed counsellors.
Jungian authors have likened the mania and depression of bipolar disorder to the Jungian archetypes ‘puer’ and ‘senex’. The puer archetype is defined by the behaviours of spontaneity, impulsiveness, enthusiasm or mania and is symbolised by characters such as Peter Pan or the Greek god Hermes. The senex archetype is defined by behaviours of order, systematic thought, caution, and depression and is symbolised by characters such as the Roman god Saturn or the Greek god Kronos. Jungians conceptualise the puer and senex as a coexistent bipolarity appearing in human behaviour and imagination, but in neurotic manifestations appears as extreme oscillations and as unipolar manifestations. In the case of the split puer-senex bipolarity the therapeutic task is to bring the puer and senex back into correlation by working with the patient’s mental imagery.”
If sleeping is disturbed, the symptoms can occur. Sleep disruption may actually exacerbate the mental illness state. Those who do not get enough sleep at night, sleep late and wake up late, or go to sleep with some disturbance (e.g. music or charging devices) have a greater chance of having the symptoms and, in addition, depression. It is highly advised to not sleep too late and to get enough high quality sleep.
Self-Management and Self-Awareness
Understanding the symptoms, when they occur and ways to control them using appropriate medications and psychotherapy has given many people diagnosed with bipolar disorder a chance at a better life. Prodrome symptom detection has been shown to be used effectively to anticipate onset of manic episodes and requires high degree of understanding of one’s illness. Because the offset of the symptoms is often gradual, recognising even subtle mood changes and activity levels is important in avoiding a relapse. Maintaining a mood chart is a specific method used by patients and doctors to identify mood, environmental and activity triggers.
Forms of stress may include having too much to do, too much complexity and conflicting demands among others. There are also stresses that come from the absence of elements such as human contact, a sense of achievement, constructive creative outlets, and occasions or circumstances that will naturally elicit positive emotions. Stress reduction will involve reducing things that cause anxiety and increasing those that generate happiness. It is not enough to just reduce the anxiety.
Co-Morbid Substance Use Disorder
Co-occurring substance misuse disorders, which are extremely common in bipolar patients can cause a significant worsening of bipolar symptomatology and can cause the emergence of affective symptoms. The treatment options and recommendations for substance use disorders is wide but may include certain pharmacological and nonpharmacological treatment options.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids may also be used as a treatment for bipolar disorder, particularly as a supplement to medication. An initial clinical trial by Stoll et al. (1999) produced positive results. However, since 1999 attempts to confirm this finding of beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids in several larger double-blind clinical trials have produced inconclusive results. It was hypothesized that the therapeutic ingredient in omega-3 fatty acid preparations is eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and that supplements should be high in this compound to be beneficial. A 2008 Cochrane systematic review found limited evidence to support the use of Omega-3 fatty acids to improve depression but not mania as an adjunct treatment for bipolar disorder.
Omega-3 fatty acids may be found in fish, fish oils, algae, and to a lesser degree in other foods such as flaxseed, flaxseed oil and walnuts. Although the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids remain debated, they are readily available at drugstores and supermarkets, relatively inexpensive, and have few known side effects (All of these oils, however, have the capacity to exacerbate GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) – food sources may be a good alternative in such cases).
Exercise has also been shown to have antidepressant effects.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may have some effectiveness in mixed mania states, and good effectiveness in bipolar depression, particularly in the presence of psychosis. It may also be useful in the treatment of severe mania that is non-responsive to medications.
The most frequent side effects of ECT include memory impairment, headaches, and muscle aches. In some instances, ECT can produce significant and long-lasting cognitive impairment, including anterograde amnesia, and retrograde amnesia.
Because many of the medications that are effective in treating epilepsy are also effective as mood stabilizers, it has been suggested that the ketogenic diet – used for treating paediatric epilepsy – could have mood stabilising effects. Ketogenic diets are diets that are high in fat and low in carbohydrates, and force the body to use fat for energy instead of sugars from carbohydrates. This causes a metabolic response similar to that seen in the body during fasting. This idea has not been tested by clinical research, and until recently, was entirely hypothetical. Recently, however, two case studies have been described where ketogenic diets were used to treat bipolar II. In each case, the patients found that the ketogenic diet was more effective for treating their disorder than medication and were able to discontinue the use of medication. The key to efficacy appears to be ketosis (a metabolic state characterised by elevated levels of ketone bodies in the blood or urine), which can be achieved either with a classic high-fat ketogenic diet, or with a low-carbohydrate diet similar to the induction phase of the Atkins Diet. The mechanism of action is not well understood. It is unclear whether the benefits of the diet produce a lasting improvement in symptoms (as is sometimes the case in treatment for epilepsy) or whether the diet would need to be continued indefinitely to maintain symptom remission.
The Role of Cannabinoids
Acute cannabis intoxication transiently produces perceptual distortions, psychotic symptoms and reduction in cognitive abilities in healthy persons and in severe mental disorder, and may impair the ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.
Cannabis use is common in bipolar disorder, and is a risk factor for a more severe course of the disease by increasing frequency and duration of episodes. It is also reported to reduce age at onset.
Several studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids may have beneficial effects on depressive symptoms, but not manic symptoms. However, only a few small studies of variable quality have been published and there is not enough evidence to draw any firm conclusions.
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