Bipolar News: Children May Not Outgrow Disorder

October 6, 2008

MONDAY, Oct. 6 ( — About 44% of children diagnosed with bipolar disorder continue to have symptoms of the psychiatric disease in adulthood, according to the first study to follow such children over time.

The study supports the idea that children can indeed get bipolar disorder, once a controversial diagnosis thought to occur only in adults. Although the details are still murky, most psychiatrists now agree that children can have the disease.

In adults, bipolar disease is characterized by dramatic mood swings, from depression to mania. In children, experts don’t always agree which symptoms warrant a bipolar diagnosis, what will happen to youngsters as they age, or which treatments are most effective.

The new study answers a key question. “Do these kids with bipolar—when they grow up—get the adult form of the disease? And this paper says, ‘Yes they do,’” says study author Barbara Geller, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis.

“It’s a pioneering study,” Dr. Geller tells me. “It’s the first study of bipolar in children ever funded by [the National Institute of Mental Health].”

In the study, published in Archives of General Psychiatry, Dr. Geller and colleagues followed 115 children, with an average age of 11, who were diagnosed with bipolar disorder between 1995 and 1998.

Eight years later, 54 were over age 18, and 44% of those adult patients still had episodes of mania. (Researchers don’t consider the rest of the patients “cured,” because they might have symptoms in the future. “Will there be some who don’t have episodes as adults?” Dr. Geller asks. “We’ll have to follow them longer to see.”)

What’s more, about 35% were substance abusers, which is similar to the percentage seen in people who are diagnosed with the disease in adulthood.

Next: Is bipolar disorder the correct diagnosis for these children?

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