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Most Children with Rapidly Shifting Moods Don’t Have Bipolar Disorder

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Science Update

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Relatively few children with rapidly shifting moods and high energy have bipolar disorder, though such symptoms are commonly associated with the disorder. Instead, most of these children have other types of mental disorders, according to an NIMH-funded study published online ahead of print in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry on October 5, 2010.

Background

Some parents who take their child to a mental health clinic for assessment report that the child has rapid swings between emotions (usually anger, elation, and sadness) coupled with extremely high energy levels. Some researchers suggest that this is how mania—an important component of bipolar disorder—appears in children. How mania and bipolar disorder are defined in children is important because rapid mood swings and high energy are common among youth.

Furthermore, many experts believe that overdiagnosis and misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder in youth may play a role in the increasing numbers of children being diagnosed with and treated for bipolar disorder. In choosing proper treatment, it is important to know whether children with rapid mood swings and high energy have an early or mild form of bipolar disorder, or instead have a different mental disorder.

In the Longitudinal Assessment of Manic Symptoms (LAMS) study, Robert Findling, M.D., of Case Western Reserve University, and colleagues assessed 707 children, ages 6-12, who were referred for mental health treatment. Of the participants, 621 were rated as having rapid swings between emotions and high energy levels, described as "elevated symptoms of mania" (ESM-positive). Parents of the other 86 children did not report rapid mood swings. These participants were deemed ESM-negative.

Results of the Study

At baseline, all but 14 participants had at least one mental disorder, and many had two or more. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was the most frequent diagnosis, affecting roughly 76 percent in both the ESM-positive and ESM-negative groups. However, only 39 percent were receiving treatment with a stimulant, the most common medication treatment for ADHD, at the start of the study.

Only 11 percent of those with rapid mood swings and high energy (69 out of 621) and 6 percent of those without these symptoms (5 out of 86) had bipolar disorder, meaning that only this small percentage had ever experienced a manic episode, as defined by the current diagnostic system. Of the children with rapid mood swings and high energy, another 12 percent (75 children) had a form of bipolar disorder that includes much shorter manic episodes.

Compared to children without rapid mood swings and high energy, those with these symptoms:

  • Reported more symptoms of depression, anxiety, manic symptoms, and symptoms of ADHD
  • Had lower functioning at home, school, or with peers
  • Were more likely to have a disruptive behavior disorder (oppositional defiant disorder and/or conduct disorder).

Significance

Given that 75 percent of ESM-positive youth did not meet the diagnostic criteria for any bipolar disorder, the researchers suggest that bipolar disorder may not be common among children who experience rapid swings between emotions and high energy levels. Nevertheless, children with these symptoms experience significant impairments due to mood and behavior problems.

The researchers also noted that ESM-positive and ESM-negative youth were prescribed psychotropic medications—including antipsychotics—at similar rates. Further study may provide insight into how serious mental illnesses should be treated in children.

What's Next

The study participants will be re-assessed every 6 months for up to 5 years, allowing the LAMS researchers to determine which children with rapid mood swings and high energy develop bipolar disorder later in life. Such research may inform efforts to identify early markers or predictors of the illness as well as possible protective factors.

Reference

Findling RL, Youngstrom EA, Fristad MA, Birmaher B, Kowatch RA, Arnold E, Frazier TW, Axelson D, Ryan N, Demeter CA, Gill MK, Fields B, Depew J, Kennedy SM, Marsh L, Rowles BM, Horwitz SM. Characteristics of Children With Elevated Symptoms of Mania: The Longitudinal Assessment of Manic Symptoms (LAMS) Study.  J Clin Psychiatr. Epub 2010 Oct 5.