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Bipolar Disorder Health Center

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Treating Bipolar Depression

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Are antidepressants used to treat bipolar depression? continued...

A very large randomized study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) called the Systematic Treatment Enhancement Program for Bipolar Disorder (STEP-BD) showed that mood stabilizers alone produced a stable improvement only in about 1 in 4 people with bipolar depression, and surprisingly, adding an antidepressant to the mood stabilizer did not increase the chances for improvement. The STEP-BD study underscored the need to find treatments other than mood stabilizers or antidepressants for bipolar depression.

How are antipsychotic medications used in treating bipolar depression?

Studies have shown that some (but not all) antipsychotic drugs are in themselves effective treatments for bipolar depression. Seroquel and Seroquel XR are used for the treatment of depressive episodes associated with bipolar disorder. Another effective drug with rapid onset for the treatment of bipolar depression is Symbyax, a combination medication of the atypical antipsychotic Zyprexa (olanzapine) and the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) Prozac (fluoxetine), an antidepressant. The atypical antipsychotic Latuda(lurasidone) is FDA-approved for use alone or with lithium or valproate for treating bipolar depression. These three drugs are currently the only FDA-approved treatments for bipolar depression.

These medications work by affecting brain receptors involved in mood and behavior, and helping to restore the balance of certain natural chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters).

Your doctor will weigh the benefits and risks of the available medications to help you get relief from the bipolar depression without the risk of mania and/or drug interactions.

How do the CNS depressants help with bipolar disorder depression?

Central nervous system (CNS) depressants, which include the benzodiazepines, act on neurotransmitters to slow down normal brain function. CNS depressants are commonly used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders and may be an effective alternative or adjunctive therapy in some bipolar patients with acute mania.

Some commonly used benzodiazepines include clonazepam (Klonopin), lorazepam (Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax), and diazepam (Valium). These drugs all can be habit-forming/addictive and can cause sluggish thinking. They generally should be used only to treat agitation or sleep problems during the acute phase of the illness and not as long-term medications. They typically should be tapered off rather than stopped abruptly, in order to minimize the risk of drug withdrawal.

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