SAN FRANCISCO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – It’s not uncommon for children to arrive at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor activation that was misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder, according to Boris Birmaher, MD.

“We get many kids into our clinic with a diagnosis of bipolar because of this, and they are not bipolar. You have to be careful,” he said during a talk about pediatric depression at a psychopharmacology update held by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

SSRIs activate about 5%-10% of children. There might be sleep problems, fast speech, hyperactivity, agitation, aggression, and even suicidality, he said.

Bipolar is on the differential, “but when you stop the medication or reduce the dose,” after a few days “they are doing well. You begin to be more suspicious” if there are classic signs like pressured speech and grandiosity, “but if there is no family history, you stop the medication and observe what happens,” said Dr. Birmaher , director of the child and adolescent bipolar spectrum services program at the clinic, a part of the University of Pittburgh.

Younger children and those with autism or developmental disabilities are particularly at risk. Occasionally, a child might be a slow metabolizer so that even low SSRI doses cause problems. “Once in a blue moon,” Dr. Birmaher said he will screen for genetic cytochrome P450 deficiency , especially if a child doesn’t seem able to tolerate medications in general, not just psychiatric ones. He’s found a few slow metabolizers over the years.

Psychiatrists also have to be careful when children and adolescents are tagged as “treatment resistant.” It’s important to teach parents what treatment resistance would actually look like for their child, so they don’t jump to conclusions and misdirect therapy, he said.

For example, when a child has been prescribed an SSRI for anxiety, parents might come in and say it’s not helping, when in fact they’re concerned about homework not getting done and restlessness in class. “There’s no treatment resistance. You teach the parent how to measure improvement of anxiety” and tackle the ADHD if it’s truly a problem, said Dr. Birmaher, also professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.

If there really is SSRI treatment resistance, he said he first ensures that a maximum dose of the drug has been tried, so long as it’s tolerated. If it doesn’t work after 4-6 weeks, he’ll switch to another SSRI or selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, or combination treatment with, for instance, bupropion (Wellbutrin) or an atypical antipsychotic, which are particularly helpful for irritability, even in small doses. Atypicals seem to take the edge off, he said.

It’s trial and error, since there aren’t much data in children to guide treatment. “The only thing I highly recommend is to make one change at a time. Sometimes we see kids who’ve had two or three changes at the same time.” In those cases, he said, it’s impossible to know what to blame if there are side effects or what to credit if depression improves.

Dr. Birmaher said he had no pharmaceutical industry ties.