Emerging Bipolar Therapies
Researchers around the world currently are exploring a wide range of possible new treatments for bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic-depression, involves episodes of extreme mood disturbance ranging from deep depression to unrestrained mania. It affects an estimated four percent of the US population. Sufferers typically alternate between these extreme states, with normal mood states in-between.
Lithium, a central treatment of bipolar disorder, was discovered more than 50 years ago. Since that time, some additional medications have also been approved and are successfully helping people with bipolar disorder. Lamictal, an anticonvulsant originally approved for the treatment of convulsive disorders such as epilepsy, was approved by the FDA for bipolar treatment in 2003. Lamictal is particularly helpful for the depression side.
A range of other drugs have been tried with limited success. Sodium valproate (Depakote in the United Statess), an anticonvulsant, often is used to stabilize mood. Certain antipsychotic medications, including chlorpromazine (Thorazine in the United States), also are used for agitation in acute manic episodes. But antidepressants usually are ineffective for the depression stage of bipolar disorder.
A 2006 study found that only half of patients remained well two years after starting treatment. So scientists remain on the lookout for improved therapies for the mood swings of bipolar disorder.
Dr. Husseini Manji of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Md., explains that current medications for bipolar disorder “certainly reduce symptoms but don’t do a good enough job. Many patients are helped, but they’re not well.” Dr. Andrea Fagiolini of the University of Pittsburgh adds: “What’s more, many patients can’t tolerate current bipolar medications because of side-effects like weight gain, sleepiness, tremor, and the sense of feeling ‘drugged’.”
Recently, researchers from NIMH have investigated the use of an anti-seasickness drug called scopolamine. In a study of 18 patients with bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder, Drs. Maura Furey and Wayne Drevets found that “rapid, robust antidepressant responses to scopolamine occurred in currently depressed patients who predominantly had poor prognoses.”