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Bipolar Teens' High Risk for Substance Abuse May Persist as Young Adults

Bipolar Teens’ High Risk for Substance Abuse May Persist as Young Adults

Following up a previous study that discovered adolescent bipolar disorder was linked to greater cigarette smoking and substance use disorder, a new study finds that risk of substance abuse was even greater five years later, particularly among those with persistent bipolar symptoms.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) investigators also found evidence that the presence of conduct disorder, in combination with bipolar disorder, may be the strongest influence on the risk of smoking and substance use disorder.

Study findings appear in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

In the new study, researchers discovered ongoing bipolar symptoms appear to predict substance use issues.

“We also made another interesting finding — that those originally diagnosed with bipolar disorder who continued to have symptoms five years later were at an even higher risk for cigarette smoking and substance use disorder than those whose symptoms were reduced either because of remission from bipolar disorder or from treatment,” said Timothy Wilens, M.D., co-director of the MGH Center for Addiction Medicine, who led both studies.

“Both those with active symptoms and those whose symptoms had improved were at greater risk than our control group.”

The original study, published in the June 2008 issue of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, analyzed extensive data — including family histories, information from primary care physicians and the results of structured psychiatric interviews — on 105 early adolescents diagnosed with bipolar disorder and a control group of 98 with no mood disorders.

Among those participants, with an average age of 14, the rate of substance use disorder among those with bipolar disorder was 34 percent, while it was only four percent in controls. The risk for smoking was 22 percent for those with bipolar disorder and four percent for controls.

For the five-year follow up, structured psychiatric interviews were conducted for 68 of the original participants with bipolar disorder — 37 being lost to follow up — and 81 control group members.

Among those in the bipolar group, 23 no longer met criteria for the disorder, 36 still were experience active symptoms and nine had symptoms that did not meet full criteria.

During the five years since the original study, more members of the bipolar group developed new cases of substance use disorder than did controls, leading to an overall incidence rate of 49 percent versus 26 percent.

In the new analysis, researchers found that controlling for conduct disorder caused the increased levels of substance use disorder to disappear.

That result suggests that co-occurring conduct disorder plays a significant role in the risk associated with bipolar disorder.

“We were surprised to find that conduct disorder, but not ADHD, played such a large role in mediating the increased risk of substance use disorder among those with bipolar disorder,” says Wilens, who is an associate professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“While this might be result of having only a few participants with bipolar disorder alone, it may be that it is the presence of conduct disorder that drives substance use disorder as adolescents with bipolar disorder become young adults.

Since symptoms of bipolar disorder usually appear before substance use disorder develops, clinicians following youth with bipolar disorder should carefully monitor for cigarette smoking and substance use, along with treating bipolar symptoms.”

Wilens and his colleagues are also analyzing a subgroup of study participants who received detailed brain imaging in an effort to understand the brain circuitry involved in these disorders and their interaction.

They also plan to investigate factors underlying the persistence of bipolar disorder and the impact of treatment on the incidence of smoking and substance use disorder.

Source: Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)

Bipolar Teens’ High Risk for Substance Abuse May Persist as Young Adults

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Bipolar Teens’ High Risk for Substance Abuse May Persist as Young Adults. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 31 Aug 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.