Bipolar disorder affects approximately 1% of teenagers and is one of the leading causes of disability in adolescence. Children suffering from bipolar disorder often present with spontaneous, changing bouts of elation and depression. Lithium, a drug used successfully for decades to treat adults with bipolar disorder, can also be safe and effective for children suffering from the chronic brain condition.
The researchers said, "Doctors can now more confidently add lithium to the armamentarium of available treatments for this vulnerable population - at least in the short term."
Robert Findling, professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, US, said, "Lithium is the grandfather of all treatments for bipolar disorder, but it has never been rigorously studied in children."
To test whether lithium is safe and as effective at treating bipolar disorder for children as it is for adults, the research team conducted a study involving 81 patients seen at nine academic medical centers across the United States. The study participants were split roughly equally between sexes, ranged in age from seven to 17 and had all been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
After undergoing a 'washout' period for those already taking ineffective medication for this condition, 53 children started a regimen of lithium at a standard dose. This dose was gradually increased to a maximum tolerated dose over the next eight weeks if mood symptoms were not controlled. The remaining 28 patients received placebo.
Results suggested that the patients on lithium experienced far more significant improvement in their symptoms over eight weeks compared with those on the placebo.
The study was published in Pediatrics.