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The place of anticonvulsant therapy in bipolar illness


 With the increasing recognition of lithium’s inadequacy as an acute and prophylactic treatment for many patients and subtypes of bipolar illness, the search for alternative agents has centered around the mood stabilizing anticonvulsants carbamazepine and valproate. In many instances, these drugs are effective alone or in combination with lithium in those patients less responsive to lithium monotherapy, including those with greater numbers of prior episodes, rapid-cycling, dysphoric mania, co-morbid substance abuse or other associated medical problems, and patients without a family history of bipolar illness in first-degree relatives. Nineteen double-blind studies utilizing a variety of designs suggest that carbamazepine, or its keto-congener oxcarbazepine, is effective in acute mania; six controlled studies report evidence of the efficacy of valproate in the treatment of acute mania as well. Fourteen controlled or partially controlled studies of prophylaxis suggest carbamazepine is also effective in preventing both manic and depressive episodes. Valproate prophylaxis data, although based entirely on uncontrolled studies, appear equally promising. Thus, both drugs are widely used and are now recognized as major therapeutic tools for lithium-nonresponsive bipolar illness. The high-potency anticonvulsant benzodiazepines, clonazepam and lorazepam, are used adjunctively with lithium or the anticonvulsant mood stabilizers as substitutes or alternatives for neuroleptics in the treatment of manic breakthroughs. Preliminary controlled clinical trials suggest that the calcium channel blockers may have antimanic or mood-stabilizing effects in a subgroup of patients. A new series of anticonvulsants has just been FDA-approved and warrant clinical trials to determine their efficacy in acute and long-term treatment of mania and depression. Systematic exploration of the optimal use of lithium and the mood-stabilizing anticonvulsants alone and in combination, as well as with adjunctive antidepressants, is now required so that more definitive treatment recommendations for different types and stages of bipolar illness can be more strongly evidence based.

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Received: 20 May 1996 / Final version: 19 July 1996

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Post, R., Ketter, T., Denicoff, K. et al. The place of anticonvulsant therapy in bipolar illness. Psychopharmacology 128, 115–129 (1996).

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  • Key words Carbamazepine
  • Valproate
  • Lithium
  • Nimodipine
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Limbic seizures
  • Regional glucose utilization