MIAMI BEACH (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS)Researchers reporting early work in three areas of chronic mental illness or disability – autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder – shared the promising results of early detection and intervention programs during a plenary session at a meeting of the American Society for Clinical Psychopharmacology, formerly known as the New Clinical Drug Evaluation Unit meeting. Common themes across research in these disparate illnesses included the benefit of early identification of at-risk individuals and the hope that early intervention might modify the disease course of lifelong illnesses.

Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., of Duke University in Durham, N.C., shared the results of her early detection and intervention programs. Since siblings of individuals with autism spectrum disorders are at increased risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), researchers began using eye-tracking exercises in very young infants. Some studies have reported differences in attention and gaze in infants as young as 4 months old; infants who went on to develop ASD spent less time focusing on the eyes of faces. Infants who later developed ASD also showed less differential in EEG tracings to direct versus averted gaze than normally developing infants. Dr. Dawson’s work found that toddlers with ASD showed distinctly more EEG reactivity to familiar versus unfamiliar objects, but not faces, indicating a lack of ability to differentiate faces.

Those changes, said Dr. Dawson, might indicate a fundamental biologic underpinning to ASD. Further, the lack of interaction with the social environment that’s seen so early might result in overall reduced input and stimulation for the developing prefrontal cortex, influencing development. “We have a double whammy going on here,” said Dr. Dawson, professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke.

Dr. Dawson found that early intensive behavioral intervention that started before age 2 and lasted for 2 years resulted in improved cognitive, language, and social behavior. In addition, brain activity of these children in response to social stimuli by the age of 4 was indistinguishable from that of a typical 4-year-old, said Dr. Dawson, also a professor in the departments of psychology and neuroscience, and pediatrics at the university.

She also shared the results of a small pilot study with parents of infants at risk for ASD who were coached in strategies that promote interaction with the social environment. She found that among at-risk infants, by 12 months of age, they showed more normal EEG responses to social stimuli.

Dr. Dawson emphasized that it is not yet known whether the early stimulation reduces later symptoms of autism. She said she hopes that a combination of pharmacologic and behavioral interventions will emerge that will enhance synaptic plasticity and improve outcomes for greater numbers of children.

Dr. John M. Kane spoke to the effectiveness of the NAVIGATE structured team-based assessment and treatment program for individuals newly diagnosed with schizophrenia. The program also incorporated COMPASS, a web-based documentation, shared decision making, and decision support tool. Using a cluster-randomized protocol comparing NAVIGATE to community care for first-episode schizophrenia, Dr. Kane and his colleagues assessed 404 patients at 34 sites in 21 states over a 2-year-year period.

In early results, NAVIGATE enrollees were strikingly more likely to be asked regularly about medication use, side effects, and symptoms; to receive counseling about work or school options; and to have family counseling and support than those receiving usual treatment in the community-based centers participating in the program over the 2 years of the study period.

Early and standardized delivery of the coordinated specialty care model, said Dr. Kane, was associated with patients staying in treatment significantly longer, being more likely to be working or in school, and experiencing symptom improvement. Patients receiving the NAVIGATE intervention had significant improvement in the study’s primary outcome measure, quality of life, said Dr. Kane, professor of psychiatry, neurology, and neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York.

Ellen Frank, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh, began her presentation by expressing frank envy for her colleagues’ relatively advanced understanding of the pathophysiology of autism and schizophrenia. By contrast, she said, very little is known about the bipolar disorders.

One thing that is known, however, is the high degree of heritability of bipolar disorder. Her work, she said, begins to assess whether prediagnosis behavioral interventions among children of parents with bipolar disorder might impact the course of the disorder or even prevent its development.

Building on the knowledge that anxiety, depression, and emotional ability in adolescence are predictors for the development of bipolar disorder, Dr. Frank developed and implemented an intervention that focused on regularizing sleep and social rhythms for these at-risk adolescents.

The open pilot study of 42 evenly split adolescents compared those who received the usual appropriate referrals alone with those who received these referrals, plus sleep and social rhythm–targeted education and support for families and the teens themselves. These interventions, dubbed interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPRST), have been shown to reduce illness recurrence in adults with bipolar disorder, said Dr. Frank, also director of the depression and manic-depression prevention program at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh.

Over the 6-month follow-up period, Dr. Frank said, IPRST recipients had significantly fewer subclinical symptoms of depression and hypomania (P <.05 for both) than their controls, according to assessors who were blinded as to intervention. Participants and their families were satisfied overall with the IPRST therapy, and Dr. Frank noted that the adolescents were “remarkably willing to be open” during the sessions.

Dr. Frank reiterated the less mature state of knowledge about the etiology and natural history of bipolar disorders. Even so, she said, this small pilot study showed an encouraging improvement in sleep patterns and a global improvement in mood and functioning among teens at significantly increased risk for bipolar disorder.

Dr. Dawson serves on the scientific advisory boards of several entities, including Janssen Research and Development and Roche Pharmaceuticals. She also receives royalties from Guilford Press and Oxford University Press. Dr. Kane has served as a consultant to several companies, including Forest Pharmaceuticals. Dr. Frank’s disclosures include Guilford Press and Servier International.

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