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Adult ADHD, Bipolar Disorder May Overlap

Wellbutrin Treatment Looks Good for Double Disorder
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July 11, 2003 -- New data may settle an old debate.

An adult with bipolar disorder can also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD. That's what Timothy Wilens, MD, and colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital found after careful study of 51 adults diagnosed with ADHD.

And that's not all they found. Wilens' team also found that extended-release Wellbutrin -- an antidepressant drug -- helps many patients with both ADHD and bipolar disorder without activating the manic phase of bipolar disorder. Reports on both studies appear in the July 2003 issue of Biological Psychiatry.

Confusing Diagnosis

It's been hard to tell whether one person can have both ADHD and bipolar disorder. Hyperactivity looks a lot like what bipolar patients experience during manic phases. And the manic phase of bipolar disorder looks a lot like simple hyperactivity.

Wilens and colleagues put the 51 ADHD patients through batteries of tests. They then had the test data reviewed by experts who didn't know that the patients had already been diagnosed with ADHD.

The results: 24 of the patients also had bipolar disorder.

Bipolar Disorder Makes ADHD Worse

As children with ADHD get older, they usually have fewer symptoms. That's not the case when the person also has bipolar disorder, the researchers found.

"So if a youngster with ADHD continues to have prominent hyperactivity and impulsivity while growing up, it may indicate that accompanying bipolar disorder should be considered," Wilens says in a news release.

People with both ADHD and bipolar disorder:

  • Had more ADHD symptoms than those with ADHD alone
  • Usually had bipolar symptoms since they were very young
  • Had more additional psychiatric disorders than those with ADHD alone
  • Had poorer overall functioning

Help for a Double Disorder

The antidepressant drug Wellbutrin has been used to treat ADHD. It's also used often to treat bipolar disorder. Can it work for both at the same time?

The answer seems to be a resounding "yes." Wilens' team gave the drug to their ADHD/bipolar patients. Seven out of 10 reported they were "much improved" or "very much improved." Most continued taking the drug after the study ended.

"They have noted major life changes associated with their improved functioning and well-being," Wilens says. "Many went from being incapacitates and unable to sustain relationships to being employed and reporting improved relationships and overall well-being."

In addition to grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Wellbutrin study received support from GlaxoSmithKline Inc., the manufacturer of Wellbutrin.

GlaxoSmithKline is a WebMD sponsor.

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