From the Journals

Family-focused therapy linked to longer remissions in youth at risk for bipolar disorder



A 4-month intensive program of family-focused therapy worked better than a less-intensive program in delaying new mood episodes among young people at risk of developing bipolar disorder, new research shows.

“This study extends the results of other randomized clinical trials indicating effects of family psychoeducation and skill training on the long-term trajectory of depressive symptoms in pediatric mood disorders,” wrote David J. Miklowitz, PhD, of the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues. The study was published in JAMA Psychiatry.

For their research, the investigators recruited 127 subjects aged 9-17 years (mean age, 13 years) deemed at high risk for later bipolar I or II disorder for having depression or subthreshold mania along with active mood symptoms and a family history of bipolar disorder. Some 85% of subjects had depression symptoms at enrollment.

Subjects were randomized to 12 sessions over 4 months of family-focused therapy – a psychoeducation, communication, and problem-solving training program incorporating caretakers and also siblings if possible (n = 61) – or to 3 sessions of family-focused therapy and an additional 3 of individual therapy in the same 4-month time frame (n = 66). Medication was allowed for all subjects, and patients were followed for a median 2 years after the intervention. Baseline characteristics, medication use, and dropout rates were similar between the groups.

Both groups saw similarly high rates of new episodes of major depression, mania, or hypomania during follow-up; however, those in the intensive family-focused therapy group saw longer intervals of wellness, with a median 81 weeks (95% confidence interval, 56-123 weeks) from randomization until the first observed mood episode, compared with 63 weeks (95% CI, 44-78 weeks) to an episode for the less-intensive group (P = .03). Dr. Miklowitz and colleagues did not find differences in the severity of mood episodes following either treatment mode or in later conversion to bipolar I or II.

The researchers described as limitations of their study its inability to measure the “temporal relationship between changes in family communication and symptom changes in patients,” which would help answer whether improvements in communication patterns aid symptom regulation, or whether more stable patients are better able to manage difficult family interactions.

Family-focused therapy “may have uniquely enduring effects that extend into the maintenance phase of treatment,” Dr. Miklowitz and colleagues wrote.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Several coauthors, including the lead author, reported receiving research grants from NIMH and other foundations. Two additional coauthors reported receiving pharmaceutical industry funding, including advisory board and consulting fees.

SOURCE: Miklowitz DJ et al. JAMA Psychiatry. 2020 Jan 15. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.4520.

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