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Pitt Researchers to Study Effects of Early Intervention for Children of Parents with Bipolar Disorder

PITTSBURGH, April 21, 2009 — Mood disorders tend to cluster in families and research shows that bipolar disorder is a particularly inheritable form of mood disorder. Since the strongest risk factor for developing bipolar disorder is having one or more family members with the illness, identifying and treating children of bipolar parents has become an important focus for prevention efforts.

A research team led by Ellen Frank, Ph.D., distinguished university professor of psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and director of the Depression and Manic Depression Prevention Program at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC, and Tina Goldstein, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, is conducting a study to determine whether a specific type of talk therapy called Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy (IPSRT), which was developed by Dr. Frank, will help to delay or even prevent the onset of bipolar disorder in children at risk for developing the illness due to a positive family history.  

“We know that the chance that a person with a family history of bipolar disorder will develop the illness themselves increases with the biological closeness of the relationship,” noted Dr. Frank. “The children of parents with bipolar disorder are therefore a very high-risk group that requires our attention.”

Research has shown that if a child has one parent with bipolar disorder, the likelihood that he or she will develop the illness is between 5 and 10 percent. The risk can increase to about 15 percent if other relatives, such as siblings, aunts or uncles, are also affected. A child whose parents both have bipolar disorder is at a 30 percent higher risk of having the illness. 

The IPSRT treatment approach is based on research showing that people with bipolar disorder, and those vulnerable to developing bipolar disorder, have especially sensitive circadian systems – meaning that disruptions in their sleep and social schedules, particularly during periods of stress, are associated with the onset of mood symptoms.

Normal shifts in sleep and social schedules occur during adolescence. Teens tend to want to stay up later at night and sleep in later in the morning. Yet, demanding school and social schedules often do not allow teens to get adequate sleep. The Pitt researchers believe that irregular schedules during adolescence, in combination with other risk factors, may increase the chances that an adolescent with a family history of bipolar disorder could develop mood symptoms. During treatment, a trained IPSRT therapist works together with the youth and family to improve stability in the teen’s daily schedules and sleep cycles and to help enhance his or her interpersonal relationships.

“The possibility that we may be able to prevent or delay this serious illness before its full expression is very exciting,” said Dr. Goldstein. “By intervening early, we hope to not only prevent the development of illness symptoms, but also decrease risk for other negative outcomes associated with bipolar disorder including academic, social and legal problems.”

Individuals with bipolar disorder who are the parents of a child between the ages of 12 and 18 who do not have bipolar disorder, may be eligible to participate in the study. Participation involves an initial assessment interview with parent and child and attendance at 10 to12 free weekly counseling sessions for up to three months. Interviews with parents and children also are conducted to evaluate mood symptoms. Families will be compensated for their participation.

For more information or to see if you qualify for this research study, please call Kelly Monk at 412-246-5796.

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