Conference Coverage

Psychiatric comorbidities in the pediatric neurology clinic



– Neurology and psychiatry have an inherent kinship, as one often deals with the brain and the other always focuses on the mind. The two fields can be intertwined, since neurological conditions are often associated with psychiatric comorbidities amid complex relationships: For example, a young patient with a neurological disorder may experience anxiety due to life changes, his or her diagnosis, or altered biological pathways from the condition or medications used to treat it.

As a result, psychiatric comorbidities are often seen among pediatric patients with neurological conditions, and pediatric neurologists can play an important role in diagnosis and management of such disorders, according to Devin McNulty, PhD, who spoke on the topic at the 2022 annual meeting of the Child Neurology Society.

The ‘second pandemic’

Mental health conditions represent about 16% of the global burden of disease among people aged 10-19, and the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically worsened the problem, as shutdowns, school loss, and economic struggles have added to the burden. “I think we’ve really seen mental health as sort of the second pandemic. We’ve seen this in Chicago in our emergency room, and in outpatient clinics wait-lists are really high. I think adolescents are specifically at risk,” said Dr. McNulty during her talk. She is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University and a child psychiatrist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Common diagnoses include major depressive order, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, somatic symptom disorder, and functional neurological symptom disorder. The last can appear as neurological symptoms that are not consistent with neurological medical conditions, such as attacks or seizures, abnormal movements, sensory loss or gain, weakness or paralysis, or speech and swallowing issues. It is the second most commonly diagnosed disorder in neurology clinics and accounts for 10% of neurology hospitalizations, and it leads to high rates of health care utilization and functional impairment.

Overall, children with neurological conditions are at about a 5-fold increased risk for depression and anxiety disorders, with a range of contributing risk factors. These include biological factors like medication use, neurological dysfunction, and genetic vulnerability. Psychological factors include stressors, the child’s reaction to the diagnosis and illness, and the level of his or her coping skills. Psychiatric comorbidities may also be triggered by social factors such as familial stress, peer rejection and social isolation, and barriers to treatment for the neurological condition. As just one example, overprotective parenting behavior, while adaptive in moderation, can create a sort of feedback loop that can lead to separation anxiety.

A unique opportunity

“There’s an overlap,” Dr. McNulty said, “because the origin is often multifactorial.” A young patient has a medical condition, which can be chronic or disabling, and the age of onset and diagnosis comes during a critical developmental period. “Then we have issues such as the impact of treatments, whether that’s medication side effects or medical visits. And then disease-related environmental changes, such as family factors, social changes, and impact on school,” said Dr. McNulty.

Child neurologists are in a unique position to identify and ensure treatment of these psychiatric comorbidities, according to Dr. McNulty. “Child neurologists will see psychiatric symptoms in their patient population, and pediatric providers have a unique capacity and ability to treat these patients, especially when you’re seeing patients on a frequent basis. You get to know these patients and their families really well,” she said.

She specifically pointed to three areas: psychosocial screening, differential diagnosis, and treatment and management.

There are broad-based screening measures that can be useful, such as the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire and the Pediatric Symptom Checklist. Disorder-specific screening tools include the PHQ-9 (depression), GAD7 (anxiety), Vanderbilt (ADHD), and PROMIS measures for anxiety and depression. “The idea behind the screening measure is that all patients would fill this out and then if a patient screens positive, they would benefit from a more thorough evaluation and history,” said Dr. McNulty.

However, she noted that screening shouldn’t necessarily be a one-off effort. Research has shown that sequential screening is the most powerful strategy. “Then you can get a baseline of a patient’s emotional and behavioral functioning, and it’s actually the changes in some of these screening measures that might give them most clinical information,” said Dr. McNulty.

In fact, on October 11, 2022, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force announced a recommendation that all children starting at age 8 should be screened for anxiety disorders. It is already recommended to screen children aged 12 and over for depressive disorders, although these documents are aimed primarily at pediatricians or primary care clinics. The American Academy of Neurology has also recommended routine screening of psychiatric and behavioral disorders among children with epilepsy.

A unique perspective

Once a disorder is identified, neurologists can bring a unique perspective to treatment. The neurologist can use his or her knowledge of the disease state to assess whether symptoms are due to poor adjustment to the neurological condition, a primary psychiatric disorder, or the biological underpinnings of the illness or prescribed medications. “I think their neurologist can sort of help tease that apart, [using] their knowledge of neurologic disorders and pathways and medications in a way that psychologists might not be able to do on their own,” said Dr. McNulty.

She also emphasized that there are effective treatments for psychiatric disorders, including cognitive behavioral therapy and various pharmacotherapy options. Other approaches for treating comorbid neurological and psychiatric disorders may include building adaptive coping skills, psychoeducation, and incorporating changes to the family or school environment.

During the Q&A period, one person commented that there should be more psychiatric training for neurology residents. “We do work with the same brain, so I completely agree with that,” said Dr. McNulty.

She was also asked how to identify psychiatric symptoms in nonverbal patients. “One thing that I pay close attention to when I ask parents about (their child) is changes in their physical (attributes). Oftentimes in anxiety in folks who are not severely impaired, if we’re feeling anxious we might be breathing a little faster, or we might get a little sweaty. So looking for physical manifestations is one thing. And then sometimes I’ll tell the parents, if we’re not quite sure, I’ll say ‘I’m not sure, but this is very common given the disorder that you have. Can we check?’ I’m always very clear that I may not be nailing it, but then when we go after it with targeted treatment and we see it getting better, we can say ‘Aha!’ ”

Dr. McNulty has no relevant financial disclosures.

Recommended Reading

Teens with diagnosed and undiagnosed ADHD report similar quality of life
MDedge Neurology
Cerebral palsy: Video clues suggest dystonia
MDedge Neurology
NICU signs hint at cerebral palsy risk
MDedge Neurology
In epilepsy, heart issues linked to longer disease duration
MDedge Neurology
Diazepam nasal spray effective in Lennox-Gastaut syndrome
MDedge Neurology