Jonah Hill’s Netflix Doc: ‘Stutz” 

Recently Jonah Hill celebrated the gift of therapy with his Netflix documentary ‘Stutz’ which chronicles his journey through therapy and his friendship with Phil Stutz co-author of The Tools. This film was intended to highlight the benefits of psychotherapy and celebrate the teachings of Dr. Stutz. Personally, I think the documentary was low on practical advice for the average person, but it did highlight one very important factor that affects therapy outcomes. That will be the topic of today’s video, can we have a therapist who is also our friend?

Therapeutic Alliance and Why It’s so Important 

This documentary raises many questions for someone who has been in both roles as therapist and patient. Time and time again we see that the most important factor in psychotherapy outcomes is the strength of the therapeutic alliance. The therapeutic alliance is a working relationship between the patient and their therapist that allows them to work together on established goals of therapy. 

To me this comes down to how much do you like, trust, and feel comfortable opening up to the therapist. When we like someone and feel-good talking to them, we feel better regardless of what type of therapeutic techniques they use. Research has suggested that the quality of this relationship is a reliable predictor of positive clinical outcomes independent of the psychotherapy approach used. I remember in training hearing many of my psychotherapy preceptors make similar statements. Jonah Hill did a wonderful job of demonstrating the power of this alliance throughout the film. For me this was the big takeaway, considering Stutz is not a traditional psychotherapist.

Having a Therapist as Your Friend

I do not believe it’s ever a good idea to become friends with a patient. There are reasons we do not accepts gifts from patients, hangout with them outside of the assigned appointment times, or have romantic relationships. These to me are boundary crossings which will interfere with the work. Yes, in the case of this film it all worked out fine, at least that’s what they want you to believe. It did not appear that Hill had fully come to terms with his past, or unstable self image. He still seemed vulnerable and is possibly worse off as he’s come to depend on the relationship with Stutz for relief.

The goal of any good therapist should to teach our patients to become their own therapist. To use and apply the skills learned in the work of therapy, not to come for some friendly advice or a chat like old college buddies. The therapist is there to help guide the work in a warm empathetic way that allows the patient to take control of their life.

What Makes Stutz a Good Therapist?

It’s very difficult to make a blanket statement about how good Stutz is as a therapist. For Hill, he helped him process some very difficult work including making peace with his brother’s untimely death and working on self-esteem and body image. Stutz is honest, warm, and empathetic during his encounters. He knows how to push sensitive buttons in a playful manner and can establish a strong therapeutic alliance. These are things any aspiring psychotherapist can and should learn to use.

Some Things That Are Not So Good

When you start psychotherapy with any patient you must establish a therapeutic framework where the work of psychotherapy will be carried out. While I believe there is a loose framework established in the film it doesn’t appear to be well developed. This opens the door for boundary crossing which you as the therapist might not be aware is occurring because the frame is so weak. He also relies on self-developed Tools that aren’t validated by scientific evidence and appears at times as an authority figure giving out life advice. Advice can be useful in supportive psychotherapy, but most patients will not follow advice alone. Is this entirely bad? No, but it might not work for most patients unless you share the same feelings for the therapist as Hill does. 

Therapist Reputation and Outcomes 

Sometimes a therapist will develop a reputation as being “good.” Clearly, in celebrity circles Stutz has that reputation. When a new patient comes there is a belief that this therapist has access to special knowledge or skills that cannot be had any other way is already established. I do not think the tools as presented in the book/film are groundbreaking or things people have not heard before. In the film Stutz words are seen as absolute truth and there is full buy in from Hill which is probably why he felt better. While his tools are developed from his clinical practice, they are not validated scientifically. In place of science, we have a charismatic therapist asking for full faith in a program with no scientific validity. For some this approach clearly works, but it’s not because the tools are any better than other techniques used in psychotherapy. 

Final Thoughts

I really Like Stutz and I do believe there are people that would benefit from his approach to therapy. However, the main benefit would not come from the tools he teaches because they are largely similar to other techniques and not scientifically validated. What you would benefit from in this brand of therapy is a warm, emphatic, and charismatic listener with some good advice if you’re willing to take it. After all, maybe that is really where the magic of therapy comes from anyway.

Disgraced Crypto King Sam Bankman And The Selegiline Patch 

There has been a lot of news recently about Sam Bankman, the onetime billionaire turned supervillain. At its peak, his company FTX had an in-house performance coach and psychiatrist named George K. Lerner. It’s unclear how many FTX employees Dr. Lerner treated but he did admit to treating some for ADHD and stated “the rate of ADHD at FTX was in line with most tech companies” whatever that means. I’m not here to debate the practices of the good doctor, but Bankman was known to talk publicly about experimenting with focus-enhancing medications. The main medications he allegedly used to become limitless were stimulants such as Adderall and the more interesting one to me and the topic of this week’s video the selegiline patch.

We are going to discuss selegiline in depth and try to understand why a medication primarily used to treat Parkinson’s may be useful for enhancing focus, creativity, and productivity in the fast-paced world of cryptocurrency. 

What is Selegiline?

Although many may not have heard of this medication, it’s actually a very old concept in psychiatry. A common “pimping” question in psychiatry residency is what was the first antidepressant medication? Most residents will say it was the tricyclic antidepressants which isn’t a bad guess but it’s not correct. The correct answer is the monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) specifically iproniazid a failed treatment for tuberculosis. In 1952 researcher noted that patients receiving this medication became unusually happy, this was shocking considering the medication did nothing for their tuberculosis.

Transdermal selegiline is a tissue selective MAOI (MAO-A and MAO-B inhibitor in the brain) and a relatively selective MAO-B inhibitor in the gut. This is an important point, and I will explain more about it as we move through this topic. 

How Do MAOIs Work?

We are speaking about the transdermal selegiline patch here but there is also an oral version that is not approved for major depressive disorder and is a selective MAO-B inhibitor. 

The transdermal patch acts in the brain as an irreversible inhibitor of both MAO-A and MAO-B which are enzymes responsible for breaking down norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine which in turn will boost the noradrenergic, serotonergic, and dopaminergic neurotransmission. 

In lay terms this medication increases the availability of all three major neurotransmitters so that more serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine is available to act on post synaptic receptors affecting changes in cells and circuits involved in depression. 

FDA Approvals for Selegiline

This is a little complicated because news outlets have stated the medication is only used for Parkinson’s disease which is true if we are talking about the oral tablets. The transdermal patch is FDA approved for major depressive disorder. 

Off label use includes the treatment of treatment resistant depression, panic disorder, social anxiety (which MAOIs are usually superior at treating), treatment resistant anxiety, and Alzheimer’s disease. 

How to Dose Selegiline

The transdermal patch comes in various doses: 

  • 6 mg/24 hours
  • 9 mg/24 hours
  • 12 mg/24 hours 

The initial dose for depression is 6 mg/24 hours and it can be increased by 3 mg/24 hours every 2 weeks to a maximum dose of 12 mg/24 hours. Dietary modification to restrict tyramine from food sources is not required for the 6 mg/24hr patch but at higher doses the same food restrictions are required as other oral MAOIs such as phenelzine. This will be important for our next discussion on side effects. 

Side Effects of Selegiline

Before starting the medication, the patient should be aware of the potential for increased blood pressure. 

Notable Side effects include 

  • Skin reactions at the site of application (the location of the patch should be rotated daily) 
  • Headaches
  • Dry mouth 
  • Diarrhea
  • Insomnia
  • Sedation
  • Possible weight gain 

Serious side effects include: 

  • Hypertensive Crisis 
  • Seizure
  • Induction of manic episodes in bipolar disorder 

Contraindications when combined with:

  • Meperidine
  • Another MAOI 
  • SSRIs, SNRIs, TCAs, tramadol 
  • Dextromethorphan
  • St. John’s wort 
  • Methadone
  • History of Pheochromocytoma 
  • Elective surgery 
  • Proven allergy to selegiline 

The Dreaded Tyramine Reaction 

I believe that MAOIs might be the most effective of the antidepressants because of their ability to affect all three major neurotransmitter circuits, but they are rarely used clinically. In most residency training programs, we are not taught to use these medications. The main barrier is the dietary restrictions and risk for hypertensive crisis if the diet is not followed. 

This diet should be started a week or so before staring the medication. It allows the patient time to get accustomed to the dietary recommendations before being on the medication when the stakes are higher. The diet must be followed for 2 weeks after stopping the MAOI as it can take time for the MAO enzymes to regenerate due to irreversible inhibition. 

Tyramine is an amino acid that is found in some foods, and it helps to regulate blood pressure. MAOIs are responsible for breaking this amino acid down so it’s inactive and unable to causes an increase in blood pressure. When you block MAO excess tyramine will be available to affect blood pressure. 

Ingestion of a high tyramine meal is generally considered to be any meal with 40 mg or more in the fasted state. For the low dose transdermal patch 6 mg/24 hours studies show that 200-400 mg of tyramine in the fasted state is required for a hypertensive response. In general, at low doses dietary modification is not required. If the dose is increased to 12 mg/24 hours than 70-100 mg of tyramine is required for a hypertensive response. Although dietary modification may not be required at higher doses, it’s safer to avoid tyramine rich foods once the selegiline dose is increased and to be cautious at lower doses as well. 

Low Tyramine Diet Principles

When a patient is on an MAOI diet they should only eat things that are fresh. This goes for food that are stored as well as the storage process may affect the tyramine content. The patient should avoid foods that are beyond their expiration date and avoid fruits and vegetables that are overly ripe. Some cheeses are allowed in the diet, but all aged cheese should be avoided. The same can be said for meat products, fresh meats are fine, but aged or spoiled meats should be avoided. 

Fermented products need to be avoided when MAOIs are being used. This goes for all fermented products without exception. 

Chinese food and some other eastern foods should be avoided because they contain soy, shrimp paste, tofu, and soy sauces all of which are high in tyramine. 

Fava and other broad beans should be avoided this includes Italian green beans. 

Foods to Avoid

  • Matured or aged cheeses (cheddar, and blue examples) 
  • Meats: fermented or dry sausages (pepperoni, salami), aged, cured, unrefrigerated, pickled, smoked meats 
  • Caviar, dried, pickled, or smoked fish 
  • Overripe avocados, fava beans, sauerkraut, fermented soya bean, and soya bean paste 
  • Overripe fruits: canned figs, banana peel, orange pulp 
  • Beverages: chianti, sherry, liquors, all tap beers, unfiltered beer containing yeast 
  • Soy products: soy sauce, tofu 
  • Other: miso soup, yeast vitamin supplements, packaged soups 

Foods That are Allowed

  • Cheeses: cream cheese, ricotta, fresh cottage cheese, mozzarella, processed cheese slices like American cheese 
  • Milk Products: yogurt, sour cream, and ice cream 
  • Meat: fresh packaged or processed meat e.g. hot dogs 
  • Beverages: coffee, tea, soda, up to a maximum of 2 drinks either 12 oz of canned or bottled beer or 4 oz of red/white wine. 
  • Soy products: soy milk 
  • Other foods: chocolate in moderation and monosodium glutamate in moderation 

Onset of Action

The therapeutic effect is usually not immediate and still requires 2-4 weeks or longer once an adequate dose is reached. 

Augmentation

For expert psychopharmacologist Only: 

  • You may consider a stimulant such as d-amphetamine, or methylphenidate while watching for increased blood pressure, suicidal ideation, and activation of bipolar disorder) 
  • Lithium
  • Seconded generation dopamine blocking medication 
  • Mood stabilizing anticonvulsant 

Advantages to using MAOIs

  • May be effective in treatment resistant depression 
  • May improve atypical depressive symptoms such as hypersomnia and hyperphagia 
  • Lower risk for weight gain and sexual side effects 

Why Would Selegiline Improve Cognitive function?

Selegiline will increase dopamine and more dopamine in the prefrontal cortex theoretically will enhance cognitive function. A lot of the research on MAOIs and cognitive enhancement come from studies in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. While promising as reported in several articles it does not appear that proper randomized controlled trials were ever conducted. If you watch my videos than you should know the risk of assuming that something that should theoretically work will also work clinically. This is the story of many medications in psychiatry. We also cannot extrapolate that to healthy individuals who do not have neurodegenerative disorders.

Selegiline is metabolized to l-amphetamine, and l-methamphetamine which are well known stimulants that may improve symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Again, this is theoretical and has never been proven but based on the metabolism of the medication it makes sense that it may enhance cognition in those with ADHD or even healthy individuals. 

People often forget that depression itself is a major reason for cognitive problems. Depression in elderly patients is sometimes referred to as pseudodementia because it can look like the individuals has substantial cognitive deficits in severe cases. It’s possible that the improvement in depressive symptoms is responsible for the enhanced cognitive function. 

Conclusion

I think this is a good discussion because it highlights an often-forgotten class of medication in modern psychiatry that can be utilized for patients who have failed other medication options. Many psychiatrists are untrained or too scared to use these medications clinically. As far as cognitive enhancement and finding that limitless pill, I do not think this is it. While it may theoretically improve cognitive function it’s never been proven in randomized controlled trials. I would say the evidence supporting this idea is weak and may even be dangerous given the risk for hypertensive crisis. 

Take Your Pills: Xanax What They Got Right 

As many might know there is a new Netflix documentary called Take Your Pills: Xanax and it combines interview footage from physicians, patients, and journalists about anxiety and the use of Xanax. For the most part I thought there were a lot of reasonable discussions about anxiety, its treatment, and the role of medication. I feel like this is an appropriate way to cap off our recent discussions about anxiety disorders and treatment. 

Fear and Anxiety: Are They the Same Thing? 

The documentary made it seem like anxiety and fear are the same thing and that the exact same neurobiology is involved in each case. I think about anxiety and fear as two separate things that require different approaches. 

Anxiety is what an individual feels when they are worried about something that could potentially happen in the future. If you watched my other videos on generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) then you know the Diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM) has made excessive worry the hallmark of GAD.

Fear is a core emotion along with sadness, anger, joy, excitement, and disgust. It’s different than anxiety, which is a fear of some future event happening. Fear is triggered in the moment. When you see that bear walking on the hiking trail or hear the rattle of a snake the fear centers of our brain are activated immediately in that moment. It’s not that we are obsessing about some future outcome, there is something present in the environment that is threatening and demands immediate action.

The Fear Center of The Brain

In humans the fear center of the brain is called the amygdala which stands for almond and that’s because they taste like almonds. No, wait that isn’t right, it’s because they are shaped like an almond. The amygdala is what fires when you see that bear in the woods. This triggers the fight or flight response which leads to things like increase blood flow to the muscles, and increased energy. It prepares the body to run away or fight if necessary. 

Benzodiazepines MOA

Benzodiazepines enhance GABA activity by acting as allosteric modulators of the GABA-A receptors. This is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the body, and it acts to dampen everything down. Benzodiazepines increase the frequency of opening of chloride ion channels which in turn inhibits the cell and prevents the neuron from firing. 

Anxiety Is a Part of Life

As I’ve said before we all have anxiety under certain circumstances. It’s not always a bad thing to have anxiety. In many ways anxiety reminds us that this situation is important, and we need to be appropriately prepared. A healthy amount of anxiety is a good thing overall. 

Things go sideways when the anxiety is chronic, persistent, and severe. As I’ve stated in the previous videos some people are just more prone to anxiety. These individuals are high in the big 5 personality trait of neuroticism. While most of us will fall somewhere in the middle there will be outliers on either side with some having significantly less anxiety and others having significantly more.  

The one thing that made this documentary hard to follow is that they combined all the anxiety disorders together, at one point they were describing panic attacks, social anxiety, and GAD as if they are all part of the same disease process. While there is significant overlap, the course of illness, and treatment plans will vary greatly which is why proper diagnosis is so important. 

Xanax Works great for Physical Symptoms of Panic Attacks 

When the interviewees start talking about Xanax it’s in the context of people experiencing panic attack. This is an important distinction to note as most of the symptoms of panic attacks are physical and thus will have a greater response to benzodiazepines. If we are talking about GAD, or social anxiety the anxious thoughts will still be there, and the benzodiazepine may be less effective. 

Why Temperament and Environment Deserves More Attention 

Much of our baseline temperament is genetic and will be part of the story that determines if you will have more or less anxiety. The other part of the story is environment. The experiences we have matter a lot too. In child psychiatry, there has been this huge focus on minimizing adverse childhood events (ACES). We discovered that things like sexual abuse, physical abuse, and loss of a parent can result in significant risk for poor health outcomes in the future. Baseline temperament that predisposes someone to anxiety combined with significant lifetime trauma could set the table for a future anxiety disorder. 

The Prevalence of Benzodiazepine Use 

In this documentary they make it seem like benzodiazepine prescriptions have skyrocketed over the last several decades. These prescriptions have increased but we need to explore why. One thing I see all the time is primary care providers prescribing benzodiazepines for patients early in treatment for depression and anxiety. Before exploring psychotherapy or other medication options the person walks out with a Xanax prescription. There is a reason the research tells us most people who see a primary care provider for depression and anxiety do not get better. In fact, as few as 20% of those started on antidepressants by primary care will show significant clinical improvement. This is not a knock on primary care, it’s more that they have been thrown into a mental health crisis and are usually the first person to encounter a patient with anxiety. 

The important trends I would like people to pay more attention to is the risk of prescribing opioids and benzodiazepines in combination. This can result in increased risk for overdose death and a significant risk for severe respiratory depression. In addiction treatment people often feel very anxious when stopping opioids and it’s common to want to address that anxiety as a doctor. What ends up happening is people are on medication treatment for opioid use disorder, a benzodiazepine for anxiety, and gabapentin for that little extra relief. All these medications in combination put the patient at risk for adverse outcomes. Another thing to pay attention to is where all the opioid prescriptions are coming from. The highest rates are in many southern states and in places like West Virginia where the opioid epidemic hit the hardest. The final item to discuss is the increased rates of benzodiazepine prescribing in the elderly. There seems to be an increase in benzodiazepine use in this population which is more dangerous due to the risk of falls, altered mental status, and possibly dementia. 

There has been a lot of talk over the years about the increased risk of dementia associated with benzodiazepine use. There data has been mixed, but I would say it’s largely in favor of using caution when prescribing benzodiazepines in older populations and avoiding the long-term use of benzodiazepines in all populations.

Social Media and Anxiety 

I think social media has done as much harm as it has good for people’s mental health. If you believe everything you see on social media, the impression is everyone you know, or follow is winning, and you are losing. In the past you only had to compare your life to people in your community. Now, we get to compare our lives to the world. Not only are we comparing our lives to large pool of people, but we are also comparing them to people who have created online personas under false pretenses. These are individuals rent house for photo shoots to make you believe that is where they live, or people taking steroids then asking you to buy some supplement that does not provide the results it promises. We all like to think we are immune to these types of schemes, but we are not. In our minds we are comparing our worst moments to other people’s best moments and assuming that this is reality. This is clearly a recipe for anxiety and depression. 

Dangerous Coping Strategies for Anxiety 

I do not think using alcohol or drugs to alter one’s state of consciousness is exclusive to the past. People have been doing this forever, and it remains a poor way to cope with anxiety. I think one of our problems is attempting to cure the stresses of life. In my practice I do not believe that taking a medication or using alcohol are ways to “cure” anxiety. Most individuals need to take a long hard look at their life and see where the anxiety is coming from and where life changes can be implemented to reduce the tension. When someone takes time to systematically dissect the cause of their anxiety, they often already know what they should do. Take more time off work, practice better self-care, exercise, eat healthy, and sleep better these examples all come to mind for most patients. Most people feel trapped and do not believe they can carve out the time to do these things and that is part of the reason they turn to medication or drugs/alcohol to cope. 

While I still believe benzodiazepines can be useful in the right context, they are designed to be used short term. I set limits with my patients early in the process letting them know up front that we are not using this as a long-term solution for their anxiety. 

Potential Side Effects of Benzodiazepine use 

They did a nice job of describing the changes in memory that occur because of benzodiazepine use. The ability to laydown new memories is impaired when using benzodiazepines that is why I caution anyone with PTSD who is in trauma-based psychotherapy to avoid the use of benzodiazepines. They also focused on the disinhibition caused by increased GABA-A activity. This is less a side effect and more a response that should be expected from the medication. Most individuals with anxiety are wound too tight and have trouble relaxing. The problem with this response occurs when that disinhibition is excessive resulting in embarrassment or inability to work for example. 

Withdrawal from these medications can be deadly. There is risk for seizure, rebound anxiety, rebound insomnia all of which can be very distressing. The problem with benzodiazepine withdrawal is the variability in terms of patient’s tolerance to dose reductions. Some patients can tapper off very quickly and have no issue, others need to be tapered slowly over months to years. While I would say it’s rare to have someone who is very sensitive to dose adjustments it can happen and tapering slowly while watching for withdrawal symptoms is important. The example of the guy pipetting a liquid microdose of alprazolam would not be a normal situation, and if you just watch this documentary, you may think everyone who tries to come off these medications must go through a similar process. Benzodiazepines can be safely reduced under the guidance of doctor. 

Conclusion

What we see in the end is more of the same recommendations most of my patients would tell “doc I already know this.” They talked about using complementary and alternative medicine which I am a big fan of, diet, exercise, mindfulness, and psychotherapy to find the underlying causes of the excessive worry. They introduce the idea at the end that the world is broken and defective and we should not have to accept the world as it is. This is fine but significant change on a massive scale takes time and it still leaves people asking the question “what do I do right now.” I’m personally active in advocacy work at the local and state level, which is one approach, but it takes a lot of time and resources to affect policy changes and not every patient will have the time or desire to engage in such activities. The only true way out of anxiety is through it. Daily life is painful, and we need to accept that to some degree. Medicating away feelings that are part of life is certainly not the solution and can be the reason we find ourselves in trouble. 

The Truth About Anxiety Treatments: What Really Works 

In the first part of this series, we discussed anxiety and specifically generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) as a diagnosis. Now we are going to look at the research associated with the treatment of GAD and let the research inform our decision making about what works when a person presents with GAD. Some of these findings may surprise you. 

SSRIs 

Although the effect size of SSRIs in GAD is small, 0.33 they remain the recommended first line option for treatment. It’s also important to confirm that someone has had an adequate trial of SSRI treatment before assuming it’s not effective. The choice of which SSRI will depend on the side effect profile and other patient factors such as presence of insomnia, substance use, or pregnancy. Escitalopram is a good place to start, fluoxetine, or sertraline can be alternative options. Although paroxetine has the FDA approval for GAD it has more side effects like weight gain and sedation, along with several other factors that make this medication a poor first-line option. If the first medication trial is ineffective it’s reasonable to try a second SSRI or switch to the SNRI duloxetine. 

When SSRIs Don’t Work

The next step in many cases is to try a medication from a different class. Two SNRIs have been well studied in GAD, venlafaxine, and duloxetine. Venlafaxine is not considered a first line choice due to the side effect profile and the small increase in efficacy. From the meta-analysis on anxiety treatments the effect size is 0.36 slightly better than the SSRIs but it would likely be undetectable clinically. Duloxetine is slightly better with respect to side effects and can be a good choice if you chose to use an SNRI for anxiety treatment. It has the added benefit of lower risk for sexual side effects compared to venlafaxine and possibly improved cognition.

Bupropion in Anxiety Disorders

There is some evidence for the use of bupropion in GAD. In one study small study of 25 participants bupropion beat the SSRI escitalopram head-to-head. Other lines of evidence include more improvement in GAD when bupropion was added as a combination treatment with SSRIs compared to adding buspirone. For clarification the effect size of buspirone in GAD is 0.17 which would be unlikely to produce any observable clinical improvement in anxiety symptoms. I largely stay away from buspirone unless it’s used to treat sexual side effects of SSRIs. Bupropion may be good option for patients who do not want the side effect profile of an SSRI. Although we lack the large RCTs for bupropion in GAD there is some evidence to support its use. The negative studies indicating bupropion worsened symptoms of anxiety come from studies in panic disorder where bupropion was found to worsen panic symptoms. 

What About New Antidepressants?

Vortioxetine had a lot of hype when it first came out, and many believed it would work for GAD. Unfortunately, like many medications when we believe something should theoretically work based on the mechanism of action, we are sadly disappointed. This is one of those cases. The effect size was found to be 0.12 and it did not even cross into the small range. This medication performed worse than buspirone for GAD.  

Vilazodone also had one positive study published for GAD. Again, based on the MOA it should work just fine, it has typical SSRI like effects in addition to 5-HT1A effects like buspirone, you should get the best of both worlds theoretically. This one positive study was followed by two distinctly negative studies and a calculated effect size of 0.26 which is considered small. 

Both were not submitted for FDA approval for GAD based on the negative results. 

The Hydroxyzine Argument

Hydroxyzine is an antihistamine that’s been out for a long time. As I stated earlier it has approval for tension associated with psychoneurosis which is the old psychanalytic way of describing anxiety. It’s often seen as ineffective, but the effect size was higher than SSRIs and SNRIs for the treatment of GAD. Hydroxyzine had an effect size of 0.45, and we may want to reconsider the use of this medication. Some limitations are the size of the studies and duration of the studies, but this still provides a fair amount of evidence that hydroxyzine may perform better than we think. 

Quetiapine Surprised Me

Quetiapine is an antipsychotic medication usually not considered as a treatment option for anxiety disorders. However, the effect size was large with a range from 1.0 to 2.2. To put this in perspective this medication outperformed SSRIs, SNRIs, and benzodiazepines. Why did it not gain FDA approval? If you watched my other videos, you should know that the side effect profile is difficult to tolerate. Metabolic side effects and sedation are common, and the FDA does not view anxiety disorders as significant enough to warrant this degree of risk. One place where this medication may be very useful is in bipolar disorder with severe anxiety. We avoid antidepressants in this population at all costs, quetiapine offers a good option with strong evidence and strong antidepressant effects in bipolar depression. 

Where this fits in clinical practice for me is as a 3rd or 4th line option after all other avenues have been explored except for bipolar disorder as stated above. The antipsychotic medications have been known to have a positive effect on anxiety, but the limitation remains side effects. 

Anxiety as a less Severe Form of Psychiatric Illness

According to the FDA medications like aripiprazole and quetiapine are reasonable adjunctive therapies for patients with major depression that does not respond to first line treatment options. This is not their view for anxiety disorders that respond poorly to first line options. When we look at disability caused by depression and anxiety there isn’t much difference in the odds of being disabled for depression vs anxiety (3.5 Vs 3.1). For whatever reason we continue to view anxiety as less significant although DSM does not identify a clear diagnostic hierarchy. 

Things like psychotherapy are often recommended as first line options. In the 1980’s when GAD was first conceived, it was thought to be a mild disorder where psychotherapy is the most effective treatment. In fact, psychotherapy did well it had an effect size of 0.5 which is nearly the same as benzodiazepines. Psychotherapy is a good place to start for anyone presenting with an anxiety disorder. I’m also a big believer of combining psychotherapy and medication for anxiety disorders. 

What about Benzos?

Benzodiazepines can have all sorts of effects on the body. Largely we think of the benefits of benzodiazepines in anxiety disorders as having a major effect on the physical symptoms of anxiety and not so much on the chronic worry that characterizes the disorder. Many of the effects of benzodiazepines would not be measured by traditional anxiety rating scales based on the updated conception of GAD. Nevertheless, Benzodiazepines had an effect size of 0.4-0.5 which falls into the moderate range for GAD. 

A final Option to Consider

Silexan the proprietary extract of Lavender oil has good evidence and a large effect size when used to treat GAD. In Germany there is a respect for the power of natural products, and they are regulated and prescribed in the same manner as pharmaceutical drugs. When silexan was studied in GAD the effect size can range from 0.5 to 0.9. This is a large effect size and I have another video that covers Silexan in detail if you are interested. This can be added to most medication regimens without significant drug interactions and has even been shown to decrease the use of benzodiazepines in those who are using them for GAD. It can be purchased under the brand Name Calm Aid for around $30 per month, and if you are wondering I get no financial compensation for saying this I’m just presenting the evidence. 

Conclusion

We covered a lot here today and I think one of the most important points to stress is the importance of finding the underlying cause of anxiety symptoms. I believe anxiety is driven by other underlying factors as discussed at the beginning of the video. There are many reasons to be anxious and all require a different approach. Without this clarification the patient is likely to continue struggling. Another important point is theoretical mechanism of action that should work, do not always work as seen in the case of vilazodone. We also had some surprises, hydroxyzine, and silexan performed very well but traditional first line options such as SSRI and SNRIs were not so great. I hope this discussion was helpful and if you want more content on anxiety disorders, let me know below in the comments section. 

The Rise of Generalized Anxiety Disorder 

Anxiety is pervasive in the world today. All of us including me know what it’s like to be anxious. We have all read recent articles about how the COVID-19 pandemic increased anxiety around the world, and this has placed a lot of focus on anxiety as a psychiatric diagnosis. Anxiety in my opinion is not an independent disease the way the diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM) would lead you to believe. Anxiety is a symptom that has various potential causes and that’s what we are here to talk about today. 

This is inspired by a real case where I needed to do a deep drive into the literature to understand the root of anxiety and its treatments. I hope you guys enjoy the topic.

Introduction 

Generalized Anxiety disorder has been revised significantly over the years by the DSM. It seems like no one knowns what GAD is, or if it’s an independent disease state. The DSM only provides descriptive criteria and does not comment on the underlying cause of anxiety. Prior DSM criteria from DSM III focused more heavily on autonomic and motor symptoms of anxiety. In these editions, what is now GAD was referred to as psychoneurosis an old Freudian term that fell out of favor as we moved away from psychoanalysis. Interesting fact, if you look up the indication for hydroxyzine in anxiety it still states “for tension associated with psychoneurosis.” The more recent updates in DSM have stepped away from these physical symptoms and focused more on the mental state of chronic and excessive worry. If we attempt to apply older studies on anxiety treatment to the current DSM criteria, they may not be valid. 

What I want to stress, is worrying is the core symptom of GAD now with at least 3 out of 6 of the following: 

-Restlessness 

-Being easily fatigued 

-Difficulty concentrating 

-Irritability 

-Muscle tension 

-Sleep disturbance include insomnia 

When I look at the criteria, they look a lot like depression to me. I often argue to my residents and medical students that it’s hard to separate depression and anxiety, but they usually disagree, so this video is for them as well. 

Causes of Anxiety 

We should try and figure out what the potential underlying causes are for anxiety. Since the DSM does not guide us here, we need to think through each possible cause. 

Personality: people often underestimate the importance of personality traits in psychiatry. One personality trait that is part of the “big 5” is neuroticism. We all have anxiety as a personality trait, some individuals have more some have less, but for the most part there is a normal distribution in the population. If you have more, you tend to get diagnosed as having a “anxiety disorder.” Most people fall in the middle we have some anxiety under specific circumstances but not enough for it to be identified as pathology. 

Depression: As I stated before there is a lot of overlap in the criteria for depression and generalized anxiety disorder. In fact, the same medications are used to treat both disorders. Depression can clearly be a cause of anxiety. 

Mania: people often mistakenly believe that people in manic states are having fun and love being that way. This is not true, and anxiety can be one of the potential symptoms associated with manic states. 

Psychosis: Schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder can be anxiety provoking disorders 

PTSD: Excessive worry can be a part of PTSD 

Eating Disorders

Substance Use Disorders 

OCD

Other environmental factors can cause anxiety independent of those listed above: life stages, divorce, death of a loved one, diagnosis of severe physical illness, significant loss of physical function from an injury 

The point here is there are many things that could result in a state of high anxiety. What you should start to see here is once we rule out all these causes for anxiety there would be no way to diagnose an independent anxiety disorder. 

Just describing the symptoms of anxiety checking the boxes for the criteria and labeling someone as having “anxiety disorder” does not have much meaning. We have to say what the underlying cause of the anxiety is to treat the symptoms effectively. 

Myths About Medication in Anxiety Disorders

People often believe that anxiety responds faster to medication than depression. This is not true the response to medication takes the same amount of time for both anxiety and depression. This provides another layer of evidence that GAD can be driven by depressed states. Trials of medications such as SSRIs can last several weeks as doses are titrated until the individual has an acceptable level of response to the medication. 

There is also no established dose dependent response in GAD. Some believe that GAD responds better to higher doses of SSRIs, say 40 mg of escitalopram. This has not been established in the research literature. This may also indicate that the underlying cause is OCD which traditionally requires higher doses and longer duration of treatment. 

Many people presenting with anxiety will be started on an SSRI. In the past paroxetine was favored by primary care because it had the FDA indication for use in anxiety disorders. I never think paroxetine is the correct choice for anxiety due to the side effect profile which includes risk for withdrawal and harm during pregnancy. Citalopram has suffered a similar fate as dose dependent QTc prolongation limits the doses we can use in clinical practice. Escitalopram can prolong QTc at higher dose above the approved maximum but there is significantly less risk at standard doses. 

How effective are these medications for anxiety disorders? Not very, a meta-analysis found that SSRIs have an effect size of 0.33 falling into the low range. 

Part Two:

Part two of this series will be coming soon. I had way too much to say about the diagnosis of GAD that I didn’t leave any time to discuss treatment. Part two will included a detailed analysis of medications for GAD.

Does Everyone Have Autism or Is It Just Me? 

There is an ongoing fascination in the world of social media with regards to certain psychiatric diagnoses. It begins with the rise of self-diagnosing, which is rampant on social media these days and ends with a lot of individuals believing they have autism, tic disorder, or dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities). I’ve also seen a rise in my patients suggesting they have autism as an explanation for symptoms clearly caused by other disorders. 

I can think of one specific example where an individual was convinced, they had autism. Later that day I observed the individual socializing with peers and staff making excellent eye contact, and all those symptoms they described in the diagnostic interview seemingly went away completely. It was clear at that point that autism was not the cause of this individual’s distress.

I feel like there is no better time to discuss autism spectrum disorders because we have a lot to clear up. 

Introduction

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) was introduced in the diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM-5) to replace the category of pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) which previously included Asperger’s disorder, Autistic disorder, and PDD not otherwise specified (NOS). You might ask, why did they change the category in DSM-5 to just autism spectrum disorder? This was thought to improve the ability to make a diagnosis of ASD while maintaining the sensitivity of its criteria. In fact, research suggests that 91% of those who met the previous criteria would meet the new DSM-5 criteria. They also grandfathered in those with a previously well-established diagnosis of Asperger’s, autistic disorder, or PDD NOS. 

Epidemiology

In 2021, the CDC reported that approximately 1 in 44 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with ASD. The prevalence has been rising over the years, and this is largely thought to be related to better detection and awareness of the disorder not vaccinations or other environmental factors. ASD is 4.5 times more common in males than females. The median age when ASD is diagnosed in the U.S. is 50 months which is about 4 years of age. ASD can be found in all racial and ethnic groups although the prevalence does appear to be higher in Caucasian children. 

Clinical Features of ASD

The focus in DSM-5 was in two domains and not the three domains from the prior classification. These domains are social communication impairment and restricted/repetitive patterns of behavior, and an individual must have had these symptoms in early childhood. Specifiers were added to indicate the level of impairment, level 1: requiring support, level 2: requiring substantial support, and level 3: requiring very substantial support.

DSM-5 Criteria 

Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction, as manifested by all 3 of the following:

-Deficits in social-emotional exchange: failure of back-and-forth communication, reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect, or failure to respond to social interactions. 

-Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction: difficulty understanding facial expressions, body language, or eye contact 

-Deficits in developing and maintaining relationships appropriate for the developmental level: difficulty adjusting behavior based on social context, difficult engaging in imaginative paly, or difficulty making friends 

These symptoms can be seen in other disorders in the adult population including social anxiety, OCD, schizoid personality disorder, schizotypal personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and intellectual disability. Therefore, it’s important to establish that these deficits were present at an early age. 

Restricted, Repetitive Patterns of Behavior, Interests, or activities 

At least two of the following must be present:

  • Stereotyped or repetitive speech, motor movements, or use of objects (simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys, or repetitive use of objects). 
  • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior, or excessive resistance to change 
  • -Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus 
  • -Hyper-or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of environment 

These individuals may have a rigid greeting ritual or struggle with small changes to normal activity. I had a case where the family took a different route to school one day and child became so upset that they jumped out of a moving car. This is the level of insistence on sameness and routine that we are talking about. 

Gender Impact on ASD

The prevalence of ASD is lower in females, but females are noted to have a greater impairment in social communication, lower cognitive abilities, and more difficulty externalizing problems than males. 

Causes of ASD

ASD is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder with both genetic and environmental factors. Family and genetic studies identified ASD as a highly heritable disorder. The heritability can range from 37% to more than 90% with only 15% of cases being attributed to a known genetic mutation. ASD is polygenic meaning there are multiple genes that contribute to the disease. Many inherited genetic variants contribute to a small additive risk of developing ASD. 

Neuroimaging research has found that ASD is often associated with atypical brain maturation. Children with autism usually have an excessive number of synapses in the cerebral cortex, this indicates abnormal pruning may be part of the etiology. Pruning occurs at a critical period in childhood where excess synapses are eliminated, it’s critical for proper cortical maturation. Other findings include abnormalities in neurotransmitter levels, immune dysfunction, and neuroinflammation. 

One of the greatest areas of controversy has focused on the impact on childhood vaccinations as a causative factor for ASD. The current evidence does not support this theory, and ASD is not associated with childhood vaccinations. 

Environmental factors including exposure to valproate, air pollution, low birth weight, and increased maternal and paternal age are all associated with increased risk for the development of ASD. 

Co-Morbidity

The most common co-morbid disorders in ASD include intellectual disability, ADHD, and seizure disorder. Approximately one-third of individuals with ASD meet criteria for intellectual disability. ADHD can be seen in 30% to 50% of individuals with ASD. Seizure disorders in these individuals can be difficult to treat, and often refractory to treatment. There is also increased risk of gastrointestinal disturbances such as constipation and restricted food intake.

Evaluating Someone with Suspected ASD

The assessment of ASD requires both an evaluation of the individual and collateral information from caregivers and teachers. ASD remains a clinical diagnosis, but there are several screening and diagnostic assessments that may help support the diagnosis. The most well-known is the ADOS autism diagnostic observation schedule, and the ADI-R autism diagnostic interview revised. 

A delay in spoken language is common first symptom that prompts referral in younger children for autism screening. The starting point is usually to check hearing and vision to be sure the individual is not suffering from deficit in either of these sensory domains. If there are dysmorphic characteristics, genetic testing for specific genetic disorders may also be completed prior to the evaluation. 

Treatment

There is no FDA approved medication for the treatment of ASD. The primary intervention is behavioral, and these interventions should be started as soon as possible. Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy that focuses in developing specific behaviors such as social skills, communication, reading, and academics as well as fine motor dexterity, hygiene, grooming, domestic capabilities, and job competence. This should be the core of treatment and has good evidence to support its use. 

If medications are used, it’s important to note that they do change the underlying communication or social deficits seen in these children. They are used to target specific co-morbidities such as ADHD, or symptoms that include irritability and aggression. There are only two FDA approved medications for ASD-related symptoms. These medications are risperidone, and aripiprazole and they are approved to treat irritability in children. 

Conclusion

ASD is a complex disorder with multiple genetic and environmental factors contributing to the development of the disorder. Since it’s a neurodevelopmental disorder it’s often present at an early age and suspicion of ASD should be followed up with a proper diagnostic evaluation.  I think it’s important for people to avoid self-diagnosis and be careful what information they are consuming on social media. 

SAINT The Best Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) Therapy Protocol Ever  

We all know how difficult treatment resistant depression (TRD) is for both the patient and the clinician. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a noninvasive method to treat these cases with better efficacy than ECT? What if I told you there is a new type of TMS that leads to remission in 80% of the most difficult to treat cases of depression? Would you be interested? Let’s Find out. 

Introduction:

SAINT stands for Stanford Accelerated Intelligent Neuromodulation Therapy, try saying that one three times fast. 

This is not a new concept as SAINT uses a noninvasive neuromodulation therapy (TMS) in patients with treatment resistant depression and it has shown some real promise in that area.

Treatment resistant depression (TRD) can affect up to 30% of patients with major depressive disorder and as you might expect it’s hard to treat these cases. When a patient reaches this point, things like off-label medication prescribing, ECT and Ketamine are used. However, the FDA just approved a new version of TMS that is reported to have an 80% remission rate in these patients. 

The approval came quick as this device has received breakthrough status by the FDA based on the impressive results from study that included 22 participants with TRD. 19 of the 22 participants achieved remission which in terms of percentage was 86.4% of participants. This is substantially better than other treatments for TRD including ECT which come in around 50%-70% depending on the study you read. 

What Is SAINT?

SAINT was first developed at Stanford University. What sets this TMS procedure apart from other methods of TMS is the intensity of treatment (10 sessions per day) carried out over the course of 5 days. Each session is 10 minutes in length. The intelligent portion of the name has to do with the use of MRI/fMRI-guided theta burst stimulation ensure proper placement of the coil on the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. 

This device made it out of the academic arena and is now being distributed by a private start up company called Magnus Medical. You can get on the waiting list now to purchase one of these machines if you feel compelled to do so after this talk. To be clear I have no affiliations with the company.

What Research Lead to FDA Breakthrough Status Approval?

In general devices are not held to the same standard as medications when we are talking about FDA approval. It’s much easier to get a device approved. 

The initial work was carried out with an open label format which is usually considered a lower form of evidence when compared to randomized controlled trials. The research group eventually published a randomized controlled trial in the American Journal of Psychiatry which is largely what allowed SAINT to gain FDA approval. In this study 32 participants with TRD were randomized to active treatment or sham. In this study they used percent reduction from baseline MADRS score 4 weeks after treatment which was found to be 52.5% in the SAINT group and 11.1% in the sham group. The remission rates in this study were 79% for the treatment group compared to 13.3% in the sham group. 

These are significant results in the most difficult patient population to treat. It’s important to point out that these participants had 10 hours of contact with the treatment team per day and the number of participants in the study was small. Both are confounding factors, but using sham treatment helps because most participants were not able to tell if they received the treatment or sham. The one thing that was more common in the treatment group was headaches which may have altered them to which groups they were randomized into.

The authors justified the low number of participants because they achieved a very large effect size with statistical significance without additional participants. What is currently missing from the research is a large randomized controlled trial conducted independently of the research group who designed the protocol (something to look out for in the future). 

Mechanism of Action (MOA)

One question you may have been thinking about is how does TMS work and what is the proposed mechanism of action for SAINT? 

TMS is a noninvasive method of modulating specific areas of the brain by generating a magnetic field which induces neural cell membrane potentials to depolarize in the brain under the coil. Placing the coil in the correct location is critical and there is a 30% chance of missing that location when MRI is not used to map the exact location of the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. 

SAINT is thought to alter brain connectivity and increase neuroplasticity in ways that traditional forms of TMS do not. The preliminary evidence suggests connectivity between the amygdala, insula, and medial frontal gyrus is altered in a meaningful way resulting in the improvement in depressive symptoms. Studies are underway to assess the MOA further. 

How Does SAINT Differ From Other Forms of TMS? 

First it differs in the time frame, it takes place only 5 days while most other forms of TMS take a full 6 weeks to complete. The treatments during those 5 days are intense, it requires 10 treatments per day while standard TMS is usually once per day. 

The time for each treatment in the SAINT protocol is much shorter lasting approximately 10 minutes compared to the 20 to 45 minutes usually required. 

There are three established types of TMS that differ in the time it takes to complete the treatment session. 

-The first one on the market was the figure 8 coil which took 45 minutes to complete each session 

-The H coils were invented by Brainsway and these sessions take 20 minutes 

-Theta-burst stimulation: only take 3 minutes, and this is the one that the SAINT protocol uses 

The next question is where to place the coil and how to place it. Traditionally the coil is moved around until the thumb twitches, this is the so-called thumb center, and we can look at the homunculus drawing and see how large the thumb center is. Traditionally we would measure 7 centimeters away from the thumb center and that should be the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This method is not very accurate missing the mark approximately 30% of the time. To fix this problem the SAINT protocol uses MRI guided imaging to be sure the coil placement is accurate. You can also use EEG or PET scans to guide placement. 

Conclusion

-While I’m glad there is innovation in TMS treatment, and the results thus far have been impressive we have to keep in mind this machine is now being marketed by a startup company and has left the world of academia. 

-It’s unclear if you need their machine to produce similar results as theta burst TMS already exists and MRI guided placement of the coil on the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex exists as well. The company claims they have developed an algorithm for placing the coil that is unique and this claim will need to be investigated further once the machines are available. 

-Another concern is most of the research has been published by the same group that designed the protocol and has not been reproduced in large RCTs independently. 

-My final concern is regarding the application of this treatment for the average patient. It requires a full 5 days and 10 hours of treatment over the course of the 5 days. This may or may not be feasible for the average patient with treatment resistant depression. We haven’t even talked about what this intensive treatment will cost and if insurers will pay for it, another potential barrier. 

-I would also like to see this go head-to-head in a study with Ketamine infusions and ECT. 

Is ADHD A Real Psychiatric Disorder: This Will Blow Your Mind 

Introduction 

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the adult population is a topic of great debate. There are many psychiatrists who say ADHD symptoms do not suddenly disappear as a person continues into adulthood. On the other hand, there are some psychiatrists who do not think ADHD is a real diagnosis. 

The term ADHD might be better thought of as attention deficit disorder (ADD). The concept of hyperactivity is more common in the child/adolescent patient population. It’s unclear if the hyperactivity is related to executive dysfunction which is the hallmark of ADHD. It may be that the hyperactivity is within the range of normal (agitation or activation) for a child, or signs of another mood disorder such as mania in bipolar illness (especially true in the adult population as bipolar diagnosis is commonly reserved for adult patients). 

We can make an argument that placing children in a traditional school setting where they are asked to sit and pay attention to uninteresting material for 7 hours is unnatural and directly against the way humans evolved to function. The human body and mind evolved to move and be active not to sit in classrooms. As a result, agitation, hyperactivity, and acting out can be the result of this unnatural state. 

The hallmark of ADHD is attentional impairment and executive dysfunction. Hyperactivity is not seen in adult populations with ADD. 

Attention As a Trait 

Attention can be thought of in the same manner as blood pressure. There is a mean blood pressure in the population but there will be individuals that fall outside the standard curve. Most people in the population will fall in the middle having a reasonable amount of attention and those with low attention levels do not necessarily have a disease although they may have consequences associated with reduced attentional activity. When someone is overly attentive it can be a symptom of disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or psychosis. Like blood pressure, having readings that are too high or too low can cause problems. It’s normal to have a certain amount of inattention, and we can think of attention as a spectrum with a range of normal levels. 

What are the Causes of Inattention 

-It could be a perfectly normal trait, as we explained some people have lower attention spans naturally as a personality trait 

-Mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder have in inattention as a possible consequence of the change in mood 

-Psychotic disorders also have cognitive changes that may cause inattention (internal preoccupation) 

-Anxiety disorders 

-Neurocognitive disorders 

-We should avoid diagnosing ADD in the setting of one of these other conditions. 

Would you diagnosis ADD during a manic episode?

Prevalence of ADHD in the U.S. 

-The prevalence of ADHD in the U.S. ranges from 5.6% to 15.9% and there is great variability depending on the geographic region 

-For most biological diseases we should see similar prevalence rates across populations and geographic regions. For example, schizophrenia has a prevalence of about 1% worldwide. So why do we see significant differences across the U.S.? 

-We do not know much about the role socioeconomic factors, diet, exercise, and other social factors play in the development of ADHD. It’s possible that these are significant contributing factors resulting in the symptoms associated with ADHD. 

Is ADHD a neurodevelopmental issue? 

-One way of thinking about ADHD is as a neurodevelopmental problem that eventually improves over time. 

-In children with ADHD they seem to achieve peak cortical thickness later than children without ADHD, this has been confirmed on imaging studies. 

-The important part is eventually these children catch up with the normal controls. It’s more a delay in brain development and not a permanent state. 

-The ADHD children are about 2 years behind the normal controls and the area of greatest delay is the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for executive function. 

How Common is ADHD and Does it Last into Adulthood? 

Over the past decade ADHD in adult populations has gotten more attention. Some would say the prevalence in adults is 4% to 5% with equal rates being seen in men and women. 

The national comorbidity survey estimated 46% of children with ADHD have symptoms that persist into adulthood. Many of these individuals had comorbid anxiety disorders and we know anxiety can be a major cause of inattention and executive dysfunction. 

In other studies, similar findings were reported. What stands out to me in all these studies is the high rates of comorbid mood disorders including depression and bipolar disorder. It’s hard to make a diagnosis of adult ADHD in the presence of other conditions considering the significant overlap of symptoms and cognitive dysfunction associated with mood disorders. 

It’s possible that mood and anxiety disorder can account for most adult ADHD cases and a variation of a normal trait could explain the rest (individuals with low attention) 

Looking at medication response doesn’t help us much as amphetamines are helpful in everyone even those who do not have a psychiatric disorder (think college kids taking them for midterms) 

When you correct for comorbidities in Adult ADHD, only about half of the young adults meeting criteria for ADHD had ADHD only. Estimates from this showed that most children diagnosed with ADHD were no longer meeting criteria in adulthood (83% no longer had symptoms). Many of the newly diagnosed cases of ADHD were in individuals who did not have ADHD as children (87% did not have ADHD as children).  

This indicates that about 20% of children diagnosed with ADHD will have symptoms persist into adulthood, the other 80% will not 

In animal models, amphetamines have been shown to have some dangerous effects 

-Decrease response to reward stimuli 

-increased anxiety 

-decreased dopamine activity 

-decreased long-term survival of neuronal cell in the hippocampus (excitotoxicity) 

Risk of Substance Use With Stimulant Prescriptions

Most psychiatrists will tell you the risk of substance use disorder does not increase with stimulant medication treatment; in fact it’s reduced when ADHD is treated. However, a well-designed randomized controlled trial of delinquent behavior and emerging substance use in medication treated children found significantly higher rates of substance use in the stimulant treated individuals. The conclusion by Molina et al. was we need to re-evaluate the risk of substance use disorder as children age when they are prescribed stimulants. Now correlation does not equal causation, but this should give us some pause when blinding stating there is no risk for addiction with stimulant use (this claim is mostly based off observational data and not randomized controlled trial data). 

Gabapentin/Neurontin The Most Common off-Label Prescription in Psychiatry 

Introduction 

Gabapentin is approved by the FDA for three specific indications to prevent and control partial seizures, relieve nerve pain following shingles (post herpetic neuralgia), and to treat moderate to severe restless leg syndrome. Unfortunately, less than 1% of the prescriptions written for gabapentin are for the above listed FDA approvals. In fact, much of the off-label prescribing of gabapentin is done for the treatment of psychiatric and substance use disorders. 

We were first alerted to the misleading marketing practices when Pfizer paid a $2.3 billion dollar fine for misleading clinicians through their marketing campaigns. Gabapentin is often thought of as a benign medication that can address symptoms in several common disorders including migraine, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, opioid use disorder, anxiety, and mood disorders. There is now mounting evidence that this medication is not as safe as people once assumed yet many of these prescribing practices continue despite a lack of quality data. Today we will review the safety and efficacy of gabapentin in psychiatric disorders. 

How Does Gabapentin Work?

Gabapentin functions by binding to the alpha-2-delta subunit of voltage gated calcium channels theoretically offering antipain, anticonvulsant, and anxiolytic properties. Although it’s structurally related to the GABA neurotransmitter, there is no direct interaction at GABA A or B receptors. 

Why is there such an increase in Gabapentin prescribing?

In the United States the opioid epidemic drove much of the 64% increase in gabapentin prescriptions 2012 to 2016 as policy makers searched for safer alternatives for pain management. Although lacking any data for the treatment of chronic pain, gabapentin was elevated into this role because of several factors cost, non-controlled status at the federal level, evidence in neuropathic pain, and benign side effect profile. 

However, the risk for gabapentin abuse became apparent as more prescriptions were written. The risk of adverse effects was prevalent when combined with other CNS depressants such as opioids, the exact thing gabapentin set out replace. Approximately 15%-22% of people with an existing substance use disorder abuse gabapentin. Those who overused gabapentin were found to be at increased risk of all-cause or drug-related hospital stay and emergency visits for altered mental status and respiratory depression. 

The off-label prescribing of gabapentin comes with risk. 

Evidence For Use in Anxiety Disorders

The evidence for gabapentin’s use in anxiety disorders comes from only two industry sponsored studies with a total of 172 participants. These are relatively small but well-designed studies that provide limited evidence for the use of gabapentin in anxiety disorders. The first study was in 1999 and looked at the use of gabapentin in social anxiety disorder. 69 participants were randomized to placebo or gabapentin 900-3600 mg/day for 14 weeks. A significant reduction in social anxiety was observed over the 14 weeks and the conclusion was more studies were needed to confirm the results. The other study looked at panic disorder with the same study design and doses of gabapentin, only this time the study lasted 8 weeks. The results indicated gabapentin was effective for severe panic disorder. One thing we notice is neither of these studies focused on generalized anxiety disorder. These results have not been replicated in other studies. 

There is far more evidence for the use of pregabalin in anxiety disorders. In Europe it does have regulatory approval for generalized anxiety disorder. 

Evidence For Use in Bipolar Disorder 

I’m going to burst this bubble and maybe a few other bubbles up front. While some believe all anticonvulsants are “mood stabilizers” they are wrong. Gabapentin has never proven in RCTs to treat mania or any other aspect of bipolar disorder. Likewise, Topiramate and oxcarbazepine have performed poorly in studies assessing their efficacy in bipolar disorder. Simply put, if you are on any of the three medications as primary mood stabilizers it’s best to consider other options such as lithium. 

Evidence For Use In Alcohol and Cannabis Use Disorder  

While addiction treatment is part of the reason we are in this mess with gabapentin, it does have a role in alcohol use disorder (AUD) and cannabis use disorder. The APA added gabapentin as a second line option for AUD because patients who take it for this indication report fewer heavy drinking days with an effect size in the moderate range. There is also some indication that sleep quality improves with gabapentin when patients are cutting back or stopping alcohol use. Alcohol is known to worsen sleep with more frequent nighttime awakenings. The dose range is 300-3600 mg/day in divided doses with many using an average of 900 mg/day. 

Gabapentin is sometimes used for alcohol withdrawal in place of benzodiazepines or phenobarbital. There were a few seizures in the gabapentin groups raising some questions about its use in severe alcohol withdrawal. It’s probably best left for those with less severe dependence. 

Typical Taper for Alcohol Withdrawal

-Start with 1200-2400 mg/day in three divided doses 

-Taper to 600 mg/day over the course or 4-7 days watching for objective signs of alcohol withdrawal and have Ativan available should a seizure develop. 

-Taper by 300 mg/day over the next 2-3 days until the medication is completely off. 

In cannabis use disorder there is limitted data. A single study showed improvement in withdrawal symptoms, reduced cannabis use, and improved executive function but this is not enough to recommend gabapentin on a regular basis in clinical practice. 

It’s important to note gabapentin failed in controlled trials for cocaine, methamphetamine, benzodiazepine, and opioid use disorder. It’s dangerous to combine gabapentin and opioids as discussed earlier in the video. 

A Quick Note on Gabapentin for Chronic back pain 

There are 8 total studies including a systematic review and meta-analysis to assess pain relief in patients with chronic lower back pain a reason many patients tell me they are taking gabapentin for. When you pool this data together, gabapentin demonstrated minimal improvement in pain compared to placebo and had an increase in adverse effects including dizziness, fatigue, and visual disturbances.

Adverse Effects 

The most common side effects include sedation, fatigue, dizziness, imbalance, tremor, and visual changes. 

Dosing

Gabapentin has a short half-life of 6 hours and will need to be dosed three times per day. The kinetics of gabapentin are not linear which means levels in the blood do not rise consistently. For a 900 mg dose, only 540 mg is absorbed. This has to do with the transporters responsible for gabapentin absorption becoming over saturated limiting the amount of medication absorbed. 

Conclusion

While there are very good reasons to consider the use of gabapentin many of the common reasons cited in clinical practice lack the appropriate evidence to support using the medication. It’s best to stick with FDA approved indications and if you are prescribing it off-label consider only using it for the disorders with the most evidence in my opinion that is alcohol use disorder when other treatments have failed. 

Can MDMA Cure Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Introduction

The entactogen MDMA overlaps with the chemical structure of methamphetamine and mescaline and has biological effects similar to epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. 

It increases the release of monoamines through the reversal of transporter proteins and reuptake inhibition specifically serotonin and norepinephrine. Not only does it block reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine it enhances the release as well and inhibits VMAT preventing the packaging of monoamines into vesicles making more available for release. It also modulates glucocorticoids through the HPA axis, decreases amygdala and hippocampal activity, increases oxytocin, and increase prefrontal cortex activity. 

Medical Use

MDMA started out as a therapeutic agent to enhance blood clotting for surgical procedures and trauma. Turns out it does not work very well for that indication, who would have thought. It’s currently listed as a schedule I substance (defined as having no accepted medical use, high abuse potential, and lack of accepted safety). 

It was later discovered to have “empathogenic effects” helping individuals who use the medication to feel more connected to their fellow human beings. After all isn’t that what we are all after? A deep connection to others and people who truly understand us. The original name for the drug was empathy, but that has changed over the years to molly and escstcy. Personally, I like names that describe what a drug does, and empathy or empath is just so much more marketable don’t you think?

Why PTSD is a Big Problem

With several recent wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, America has a PTSD problem with many combat veterans returning home and requiring treatment. If you ever treated patients with PTSD than you know it’s difficult and the therapy can be intense. Many patients are unable to sit with the discomfort required to reconsolidate these memories. Having worked at the VA for one year I was surprised by the number of vets with non-combat related PTSD. Honestly, they the vast majority of my cases were people who had accidents while working or in training and subsequently developed PTSD. 

The idea is we need methods to enhance the efficacy and speed of trauma focused psychotherapies. What better way to do that than with empathy a medication that enhances feelings of connection. The basic idea being the patient would be given MDMA and then undergo psychotherapy and by using the medication it can influence fear extinction and memory reconsolidation. There are many mechanisms at play including effects on dopamine, serotonin, BDNF, cortisol, and oxytocin. 

The concept of using a psychedelic drug to enhance the effects of psychotherapy is not a new concept, and was done for years using LSD and other compounds. What is different now, is we are trying to put the scientific rigor behind the studies to prove that it works better than placebo, and to learn more about the mechanism of action. 

I want to point out that the main benefit of all these psychedelic medications seems to be enhanced neuroplasticity and the ability to form new connections in critical neurocircuits much easier than would otherwise be possible. 

Benefits of MDMA Assisted Psychotherapy

-Increase blood flow to the vmPFC decreasing activation of the amygdala largely responsible for the fear response 

-Enhance the production of BDNF which improves the long-term potentiation and memory consolidation 

-Elevate the stress hormone cortisol which interacts with glucocorticoid receptors in the hippocampus to improve memory 

-Elevates the prosocial neuropeptide oxytocin which decreases activation of the amygdala and enhances connection with the therapist

-Increased levels of dopamine which can destabilize the old memories and help with reconsolidation of new ones 

-Increased serotonin levels resulting in prosocial and positive affective states. 

The goal of PTSD treatment is to prevent the patient from being held hostage by these memories. We want to destabilize the old memories, modify them, and reconsolidate the new memories. The trauma still occurred, but the patient no longer has the same fear reaction to the traumatic memories. 

MDMA-Assisted Therapy proved to be highly effective in individuals with severe PTSD. 

-In this study investigators gave patients with PTSD 120-180 mg of MDMA along with a trauma focused psychotherapy. There were significant rates of both response and remission compared to placebo. 

-MDMA was well tolerated 

-It was granted breakthrough status by the FDA 

-This was a big deal in the news and media outlets 

-It needs to be replicated to confirm the results 

Potential Adverse Effects of MDMA 

-Potential for abuse and diversion (probably no take homes) 

-Possible hyperthermia or hyponatremia (more common in the recreational use environment than clinical) 

-People often engage in prolonged physical activity in hot environments and do not consume enough water this results in dehydration and possible hyperthermia (think large dance party)

-In the opposite case the person overcompensates and overconsumes water diluting their blood and causing hyponatremia. Excess of anything can cause problems and water is no exception. 

Blue Monday and Black Tuesday 

-Use of MDMA can cause low mood, irritability, and fatigue. It can occur for days after recreational use. 

-In the clinical setting, fatigue, anxiety, low mood, headaches, and nausea can occur in the week after treatment 

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