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Psychopharmacol Bull. 1993;29(4):447-56.

Report on efficacy of treatments for bipolar disorder.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, College of Medicine, University of Arizona, Tucson 85724.


Nearly one percent of adults in the United States suffer from bipolar disorder, a severe, chronic, and life-threatening disease. This disorder involves periodic episodes of mania and depression. At least 80 percent of patients who have an initial episode of mania will have one or more subsequent episodes. Because recurring episodes have a cumulative deteriorative effect on functioning and treatment response, the sooner bipolar patients are diagnosed and treated, the better their changes are for recovery. With optimal treatment, a bipolar patient can regain approximately 7 years of life, 10 years of effective major activity, and 9 years of normal health, which otherwise would have been lost due to the illness. For treatment purposes, bipolar disorder is divided into three stages: acute mania, acute depression, and maintenance. Lithium is the standard treatment for acute mania, and its effectiveness is solidly supported by experimental evidence. Rigorous studies over the past 40 years involving hundreds of patients have repeatedly shown the efficacy of lithium therapy, with approximately 80 percent of subjects responding favorably. For those who do not, several other drugs and nonpharmacologic therapies are available that have shown high success rates in well-standardized trials. The anticonvulsant drug carbamazepine has been associated with improved symptoms in approximately 60 percent to 70 percent of subjects in double-blind trials comparing it against placebo, neuroleptics, and/or lithium. Valproate, another anticonvulsant, has been shown to be comparable to lithium and superior to placebo in treating acute mania in several double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is another effective treatment for acute mania, with a positive response rate of approximately 80 percent. Acute bipolar depression has been successfully treated with a number of agents, including monoamine oxidase inhibitors (e.g., tranylcypromine), lithium, tricyclic antidepressants, and second-generation antidepressants (e.g., bupropion). Nonpharmacologic approaches such as ECT, sleep deprivation, and light therapy have been effective as supplemental therapy in many patients. For maintenance therapy, lithium is again the drug of choice. Clinical research has shown that maintenance lithium lessens the frequency and severity of episodes of mania and depression in bipolar patients and helps stabilize mood between episodes. Long-term lithium treatment also reduces the risk of mortality for bipolar patients: without treatment, mortality is two to three times higher than that of the general population; with treatment, it is not significantly different. Several other drugs have been studied as alternatives or adjuncts to lithium therapy.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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