Last updated on April 2019

Early Intervention for Youth at Risk for Bipolar Disorder


Brief description of study

Children or teens with mood swings or depression who have a parent with bipolar disorder are at high risk for developing bipolar disorder themselves. This study will test a family-based therapy aimed at preventing or reducing the early symptoms of bipolar disorder in high-risk children (ages 9-17). In a randomized trial, the investigators will compare two kinds of family-based treatment (one more and one less intensive) on the course of early mood symptoms and social functioning among high-risk children followed for up to 4 years. The investigators will examine the effects of family treatment on measures of neural activation using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Detailed Study Description

Children who are at high risk for developing bipolar disorder (BD) often are showing significant mood swings or depression well before they develop the full disorder. Often, these children have one or more parents who have bipolar disorder. In addition to brief episodes of lethargic depression and mania or hypomania (periods of excessive activity), children and adolescents at risk for BD often have co-occurring disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, substance abuse disorders, and anxiety disorders.

Early interventions may lead to better mental health by preventing BD from ever fully expressing itself. This study will test an early intervention for BD called family-focused treatment (FFT), which has been designed to help children and adolescents who are at risk for developing BD. FFT will combine education about BD with training in communication strategies and problem-solving skills. It will focus on the family, because family environmental factors are related to the course and recurrence of BD. By reducing risk factors and teaching coping skills, FFT aims to reduce the early symptoms of BD, improve functioning, and delay the onset or reduce the severity of manic episodes.

Participation in this study will last up to 4 years, although the majority of the study will occur in the first year. There are three parts. In the first part, participating children and their families will complete research interviews and questionnaires about the child's mood, behavior, beliefs, and problems. Parent participants will provide information on the family background of mood or anxiety problems. All participants will receive a thorough medical-psychiatric evaluation and be provided with pharmacotherapy (as needed) from a study psychiatrist for the first year of the study.

In the second part, participants will be randomly assigned to receive one of two treatments: FFT or enhanced care. Participants receiving FFT will complete 12 therapy sessions in which parents, children, and siblings learn how to cope with mood disorders, new ways to talk to each other, and strategies for solving family problems. FFT sessions will occur weekly for the first 8 weeks and then every other week for the next 8 weeks. Participants receiving enhanced care will have 3 weekly sessions which will involve the youth and all family members. In session 1, clinicians summarize the diagnostic assessment, introduce mood charting, and offer instructional handouts on managing mood swings. In session 2, clinicians revisit mood charting, discuss medications (if relevant), and help the child and family develop a mood management plan. In session 3, families rehearse mood regulation strategies for current family, social or academic problems. Clinicians then meet with the child individually every month for the next 3 mos. to provide support, assist with problem-solving, and troubleshoot use of the mood management plan. So, both treatments last 4 months.

In the third part of the study, participants will complete follow-up assessments every 4 months for 1 year. Assessments will include interviews and questionnaires similar to those completed in the first part of the study.

The statistical analyses for this study will examine changes in symptoms and functioning from the baseline assessment through the 4 month follow-ups in year 1 and the 6 month follow-ups in years 2-4.

Clinical Study Identifier: NCT01483391

Recruitment Status: Closed


Brief Description Eligibility Contact Research Team


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