So Apparantly I'm Bipolar

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Aug 8, 2011 8:50 PMNov 5, 2019 12:15 AM


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According to a new paper, yours truly is bipolar.

I've writtenbefore of my experience of depression, and the fact that I take antidepressants, but I've never been diagnosed with bipolar.

I've taken a few drugs in my time. On certain dopamine-based drugs I got euphoric, filled with energy, talkative, confident, with no need for sleep, and a boundless desire to do stuff, which is textbook hypomania. So I think I know what it feels like, and I can confidently say that it has never happened to me out of the blue.

On antidepressants, I have had some mild experiences of this type. Ironically, the closest I've come to it was when I quit an SSRI antidepressant. I've also experienced periods of irritability and agitation on antidepressants. Either way, that's antidepressants. Bipolar is when you get high on your own supply of neurotransmitters.

Well, it used to be. Jules Angst et al have got some new, broader criteria for "bipolarity" in depression. They say that manic symptoms in response to antidepressants do count, exactly like out-of-the-blue mania.

What's more, under the new "Bipolar Specifier" criteria, there's no minimum duration. Under existing criteria the symptoms have to last 4 or 7 days, depending on severity. Under the new regime if you've ever been irritable, high, agitated or hyperactive, on antidepressants or not, you meet "Bipolar Specifier" criteria, so long as it was marked enough that someone else noticed it.

All you need is:

an episode of elevated mood, an episode of irritable mood, or an episode of increased activity with at least 3 of the symptoms listedunder Criterion Bof the DSM-IV-TR associated with at least 1 of the 3 following consequences: (1) unequivocal and observable change in functioning uncharacteristic of the person’s usual behavior, (2) marked impairment in social or occupational functioning observable by others, or (3) requiring hospitalization or outpatient treatment.

The bipolar net just got bigger. And they caught me in it. Me and 47% of depressed people in their study. They recruited 509 psychiatrists from around the world, and got each of them to assess between 10 and 20 consecutive adult depressed patients who were referred to them for evaluation or treatment. A total of 5635 patients were included.

Only 16% met existing DSM-IV criteria for bipolar disorder, so the new system with 47% identified an "extra" 31%, trebling the number of bipolar cases.

A cynic would say that this is a breathtaking piece of psychiatric marketing. You give people antidepressants, then you diagnose them with bipolar on the basis of their reaction to those drugs, thus justifying selling them yet more drugs.

The cynic would not be surprised to learn that this study was sponsored by pharmaceutical company Sanofi.

All investigators recruited received fees, on a per patient basis, from sanofi-aventis in recognition of their participation in the study....The sponsor of this study (sanofi-aventis) was involved in the study design, conduct, monitoring, data analysis, and preparation of the report.

In fairness, the authors do show that patients meeting their criteria tend to have characteristics typical of bipolar people. And they show that their system is at least as good as DSM-IV at picking out these cases:

For example, DSM-IV bipolar patients had a younger age of onset than DSM-IV depressed ones. "Bipolar specifier" patients did too, compared to the 53% who didn't meet the criteria. Same for a family history of manic symptoms, multiple episodes, and shorter episodes. All of those are pretty well established correlates of bipolar disorder.

That's fine, and the results are better than I expected when I picked up this paper. But all this shows us is that the bipolar specifier was no worse than the DSM-IV criteria as applied in this study.

It doesn't tell us whether either was any good.

DSM-IV criteria were used in a mechanical cookbook fashion - symptoms were assessed by the psychiatrist, written down, sent back to the study authors, who then diagnosed them if they ticked enough boxes. Is that a good approach? We don't know.

Most importantly, we have no idea whether these people would do better being treated as bipolar rather than as depressed. The difference being that bipolar people get mood stabilizers. Maybe these people would benefit from mood stabilizers, maybe not. Existing literature on mood stabilizers in bipolar people can't be assumed to generalize to these 47%.

In the discussion, the authors argue that antidepressants are not much good in bipolar people, whereas mood stabilizers are. Fun fact: Sanofi make many of the most popular formulations of valproic acid/valproate , a big selling mood stabilizer.

I think that is no coincidence. Maybe that sounds crazy, but hey, what do you expect? I'm bipolar.

Angst J, Azorin JM, Bowden CL, Perugi G, Vieta E, Gamma A, Young AH, & for the BRIDGE Study Group (2011). Prevalence and Characteristics of Undiagnosed Bipolar Disorders in Patients With a Major Depressive Episode: The BRIDGE Study. Archives of general psychiatry, 68 (8), 791-798 PMID: 21810644

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