trauma podcast

Emotional Shutdown—Understanding Polyvagal Theory

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“Polyvagal Theory Simplified”

By David Puder, M.D.

Polyvagal theory explains three different parts of our nervous system and their responses to stressful situations. Once we understand those three parts, we can see why and how we react to high amounts of stress.

If polyvagal theory sounds as exciting as watching paint dry, stick around, trust me. It’s a fascinating explanation of how our body handles emotional stress, and how we can use different therapies it to rewrite the effect of trauma. 

Why is polyvagal theory important?

For therapists, and pop-psychology enthusiast alike, understanding polyvagal theory can help with:

  • Understanding trauma and PTSD

  • Understanding the dance of attack and withdrawal in relationships

  • Understanding how extreme stress leads to dissociation or shutting down

  • Understanding how to read body language

We like to think of our emotions as ethereal, complex, and difficult to categorize and identify.

The truth is that emotions are responses to a stimulus (internal or external). Often they happen out of our awareness, especially if we are out of touch, or incongruent, with our inner emotional life.

Our primal desire to stay alive is more important to our body than even our ability to think about staying alive. That’s where polyvagal theory comes in to play.

The nervous system is always running in the background, controlling our body functions so we can think about other things—like what kind of ice cream we’d like to order, or how to get that A in med school. The entire nervous system works in tandem with the brain, and can take over our emotional experience, even if we don’t want it to.

A story about a gazelle...

Animals are a great example of how we handle stress, because they react primally, without awareness. They do what we would, if we weren't so well tamed.

If you have ever watched a National Geographic Africa special, you’ve seen a lioness chase a gazelle. A group of gazelles is grazing, and suddenly one looks up, hyper aware of what is happening around him. The whole group notices and pays attention.

After a moment, the lioness starts her chase. The gazelle she’s singled out runs as fast as he can (sympathetic nervous system), until he is caught. When he is caught, he instantly goes limp (parasympathetic nervous system).

The lioness drags the gazelle back to her cubs, where they begin to play with it before they go in for the kill. If the lioness gets distracted, and the gazelle sees a moment of opportunity, he’s up and sprinting off again, looking like he suddenly came back to life (back into sympathetic nervous system response).

When the gazelle was caught, with fangs around his neck, his shutdown response kicked in—he froze. When he saw the opportunity to run, his fight or flight kicked in, and he ran.

Poyvagal theory covers those three states—connection, fight or flight, or shutdown. 

Here's how they work...

Connection Mode

or...rest and relaxation...or myelinated vagus nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system coming from the nucleus ambiguus response

During non-stressful situations, if we are emotionally healthy, our bodies stay in a social engagement state, or a happy, normal, non-freak-out state.

I like to call it “connection.” By connection, I mean that we are capable of a “connected” interaction with another human being. We are walking around, unafraid, enjoying our day, eating with friends and family and our body and emotions feel normal.  

It’s also called ventral vagal response, because that’s the part of the brain that is activated during connection mode. It’s like a green light for normal life.

How does this look and feel?

  • Our immune system is healthy.

  • We feel normal happiness, openness, peace, and curiosity about life.

  • We are sleeping well and eating normally.

  • Our face is expressive.

  • We emotionally relate to others.

  • We more easily understand and listen to others.

  • Our body feels calm and grounded.

 

Freeze, Flight, Fight, or Puff Up

...or the sympathetic nervous system response

The sympathetic nervous system is our immediate reaction to stress that affects nearly every organ in the body.

The sympathetic nervous system causes that “fight or flight” state we have all heard of. It gives us those cues so that it can keep us alive.

How does this happen? How does this look and feel?

  • We sense a threat and freeze to scan the surroundings for real danger.

  • We release cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine to help us accomplish what we need to—get away, or fight our enemy.

  • Our heartbeat spikes, we sweat, and we feel more mobilized.

  • We feel anxious, afraid, or angry.

  • There may be flashes of facial expressions of fear and anger, with the background of more of a still face.  If positive emotions are present, they usually look forced.

  • Our digestion slows down as blood rushes to the muscles.

  • Our blood vessels constrict to the intestines and dilate to the muscles needed to run or fight.

  • We may want to run away, or punch someone, or react physically in some way, or just puff-up and look scary.

  • Our muscles may feel tense, electric, tight, vibrating, aching, trembling, and hard.

  • Our hands may be clammy.  

  • Our stomach may be painfully knotted.

  • All our senses focus.   

  • Our gestures may show guarding of our vital organs, fists clenched, or puffing ourselves up to look bigger or stronger.

In fight or flight, at some level we believe we can still survive whatever threat we think is dangerous.

Shut Down

...or the Unmyelinated Vagus of the Parasympathetic Nervous System coming from the Dorsal Motor Nucleus

What’s interesting about this part of the parasympathetic nervous system? Its function is to keep us frozen as an adaptive mechanism to help us survive to either fight or flight again.

When David Livingston was attacked by a lion, he later reported, “it caused a sort of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening.”

When our sympathetic nervous system has kicked into overdrive, and we still can’t escape and feel impending death the dorsal vagal parasympathetic nervous system takes control.

It causes freezing or shutdown, as a form self preservation. (Think of someone who passes out under extreme stress.)

How does this look and feel?

  • Emotionally, it feels like dissociation, numbness, dizzy, hopelessness, shame, a sense of feeling trapped, out of body, disconnected from the world

  • Our eyes may look fixed and spaced out

  • The dorsal motor nucleus through the unmyelinated vagus nerve decreases our heart rate, blood pressure, facial expressions, sexual and immune response systems

  • We may be triggered to feel nauseated, throw up, defecate, spontaneously urinate

  • We may feel low or no pain

  • Our lungs (bronchi) constrict and we breathe slower

  • We may have difficulty getting words out or feel constriction around our throat

  • Our brain has decreased metabolism and this causes a loss of body awareness, limp limbs, decreased ability to think clearly, and decreased ability to lay down narrative memories

  • Our body posture may collapse or curl up in a ball

In shutdown mode, at some level our nervous system believes we are in a life-threatening situation, and it tries to keep us alive through keeping our body still.

Some people who have had both attachment trauma and subsequent trauma can have chronic suicidality, and dissociation episodes that last days to months. Research shows that long term solutions include:

  • Dialectical behavioral therapy

  • Mentalization based therapy

  • Transference focused therapy

How trauma affects the nervous system

As humans, we do the same thing as that gazelle when we perceive emotional or physical danger. We alternate between peaceful grazing (parasympathetic - connection mode), fight or flight (sympathetic system- fight and flight) or shutdown (parasympathetic- shut down mode).

Our response is all in our perception of the event. Maybe someone was just playing a game when they jumped out to scare us, but we fainted. Whatever the reason, whether the incident was intentional or not, our body shifted into shutdown mode, we registered it as a trauma. our body shifted into shutdown mode.

Or maybe the trauma event was really, life threatening, and our nervous system responded appropriately to the stimuli.

No matter what the cause was, our brain believed what was happening was life threatening enough that it caused our body to go into flight, flight, or shutdown mode.

If someone has been through such a traumatic event that their body tips into shutdown response, any event that reminds the person of that life-threatening occurrence can trigger them into disconnection or dissociation again.

People can even live in a state of disconnection or shutdown for days or months at a time.

Veterans often experience this during loud, sudden noises such as fireworks or thunderstorms. A woman who was raped might quickly switch into hypervigilant or dissociated response if she feels someone is following her. Someone who was abused might be triggered when even another person starts yelling.

The problem occurs when we haven’t processed the original trauma in such a way that the original trauma is resolved.

That’s what PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is—our body’s overreaction to a small response, and either stuck in fight and flight or shut down. 

People who experience trauma and the shutdown response usually feel shame around their inability to act, when their body did not move. They often wish they would have fought more during those moments.  

A Vietnam vet may feel they failed their companions who died around them while they stood, frozen in fear. A rape victim may feel he or she didn’t fight off their rapist because they froze. A victim of abuse may feel they quit trying to escape their abuser, and that they are weak or failed.

Much of “stress” training, which trains people to continue to remain in fight and flight mode, aims to keep people out of dissociation during real life or death situations. Unfortunately, these practices aren’t common beyond elite sports teams or special forces.  The right amount of stress, with good recovery, can lead our nervous systems into higher levels of adaptation.  

Coming out of shutdown mode

So how do we climb back out of shutdown mode?

The opposite of the dorsal vagal system is the social engagement system.

So, in short, what fixes shutdown mode is bringing someone into healthy social engagement, or proper attachment.

Getting down into the nuts and bolts of how this works in our body can help us understand why we feel the way we do physically when your body is in fight, flight, or shut down mode.

When we understand why our body reacts the way it does, like a string of clues and some basic science about the brain, we can understand how to switch states. We can begin to move out of the fight or flight state, out of the shutdown mode, and back into the social engagement state.

As therapists, whether we are just establishing a connection with a new, anxious patient, or helping them deal with their deepest traumatic memories, knowing how to navigate the polyvagal states is important.

It can also be helpful if you have just identified yourself in some of these symptoms. Such as, “When I’m with my parents, even as an adult, and they start fighting, I feel lightheaded and disconnected.”

If you’ve seen some of these things in yourself, hopefully through therapy, and even understanding how this works, you can pull yourself out of a disconnected state.

Studies show that some parts of the brain shut down during the recall of traumatic events, including the verbal centers and the reasoning centers of the brain (Van Der Kolk, 2006).

This is why it’s important to conduct therapy, or coming out of shutdown mode, in a safe, healthy way, in a safe, healthy environment. This is why positive attachment is imperative. Otherwise, you run the risk of retraumatizing the patient.

Because I am a psychiatrist, I am going to write this to demonstrate how to help a patient switch out of shutdown mode.

However, these tips still apply to those who are just understanding how shutdown mode works. And it can even help those who feel shut down to begin to know how to try and attain a healthy social engagement mode again.

  • Have a trust-based relationship. Because of the potential to re-traumatize, don’t even address intensely traumatic events—especially ones where you think shutdown mode kicked in, until the therapeutic relationship feels deeply connected.

    It’s important as the therapist to allow the patient to express things they couldn’t express to other people—shameful feelings, anger, sexual response, anything that feels frightening to share with others.

  • Find your own calm center. If you can empathize with their distress, stay in the moment with them, and help them feel connected during their shutdown, you are throwing them a lifeline. You’re helping them come out of shutdown, into social engagement.

    It’s important to fight against the urge to dissociate, no matter how gruesome the subject matter is. As therapists, we could dissociate because of the mirror neuron response—to mirror our patient’s brain, and because when hearing horrific trauma, it’s easy to imagine it happening to us.

    The human experience is so powerful that when we re-engage the trauma, with someone else to support us, it rewrites that event in our brain, adding in the feeling of being supported within the trauma memory. We create new neural pathways around the trauma, and we can change our body’s response to it.
     

  • Let the patient lead. Don’t go on a witch hunt. If the patient brings it up, lean into the subject. But it is harmful to prompt the patient into something that isn’t there by asking leading questions and trying to get them to confess. Don’t let your own experience lead you to imagine they have also experienced something.  

  • Normalize their response. The entire polyvagal theory should make us say “thank you!” to our bodies. Even if that systems is overactive at times—unwarranted panic or anxiety—that our body is watching out for us, trying to keep us alive.

    Our body reacting in that way is the same thing as the gazelle either running away or going limp. And gazelles have no idea what emotions are in the first place.

    Now that the patient understands that their emotional response was adaptive, primal, and appropriate, we can get rid of the shame that their non-reaction caused.

  • Help them find their anger. Anger is an incredibly adaptive emotion, and it’s one we don’t allow ourselves to have. We think anger is bad. But really, anger shows us where our healthy boundaries were crossed.

    Anger gives us energy to overcome the obstacle. We can help the patient see they had the emotional energy to overcome, but the energy wasn’t able to be manifested at the time they wanted it.

    If, in a session, we can get a patient to identify their anger, they will see that they were not completely unresponsive to the traumatic event. If we can help them feel even the tiniest movement of a microexpression of anger on their face—the slight downturn of the inner eyebrows—we can show them their body didn’t totally betray them in that moment.

    We can reconnect their body and their feelings to their emotions. This helps develop a state of congruence—where their inside feelings match their outer demonstrations of those feelings.

Further, as a dissociative memory is explored, finding anger and reducing shame allows for the memory to fundamentally change. Anger brings them out of dissociation, even if it is anger at you, the therapist!
 

  • Introduce body movement. Because shutdown causes us to freeze, reactivating body movements while talking about the trauma is a great way to reconnect the body and mind, to bring them out of shutdown.

    For example, one of my patients was in an accident. When the EMS showed up, they strapped her to a gurney to load her into the back of an ambulance. More than the actual accident, being trapped on that gurney was traumatic for her. For the entire ride to the hospital, she was terrified that she’d hurt her neck, and all of the anxiety that surrounds a neck injury caused her to be frozen in fear.

    Even in talking about the trauma in the therapy session, her body was stiff, frozen, and she was dissociating.

    I asked her, “In what way would you have wanted to move during that moment?” She said she would have wanted her arms to be able to move. I asked her to slowly, mindfully, move her arms in the way she would have wanted to.

    It’s important to do the movement mindfully and slowly, focusing on the sensation of the movement. That patient felt a huge release of energy. In the following sessions, she was able to tell the memory as a narrative, instead of dissociating.

    Having the patient move—slow punching, kicking, twisting, running slowly in place—flips the person from shutdown into the fight or flight mode, with the goal being to move into connection, or social engagement, mode.

    Body movement exercises, in conjunction with talking to a therapist, can fundamentally change the memory.
     

  • Practicing assertiveness. Emotional shutdown can occur within relationships where one person feels they cannot communicate with the other person well.

    One therapist, John Gottman, describes this practice as stonewalling. Practicing assertiveness can help the patient feel more in control of their emotional state, and feel safe to move into healthy relationship patterns.

  • Breath work, mindfulness, and yoga all have a role in becoming more connected to your here and now body. I will discuss this subject at length in a future podcast.  
     

  • Become a Judo Master and practice strength training. Teaching yourself how to better protect yourself in the future can be powerful and also resets the stress system over time. I talked about strength training in a prior episode, and in the future will talk about learning to fight as an active way to not remain passive or a victim both in mindset and capability.  Further doing something hard, on an ongoing basis, allows for building inner strength which can keep you in fight and flight longer before going into shut down.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2006). Clinical implications of neuroscience research in PTSD. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1071(1), 277-293.

 

The History and Use of Antipsychotics

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In my last post, Dr. Cummings and I talked about what psychopharmacology is, how medicine works in our body, and what factors affect medicine absorption rates.

In the latest podcast, Dr. Cummings and I talked about antipsychotics, the particular branch of psychopharmacology that deals with medicines that treat psychotic experiences and other mental disorders, such as:

  • Schizophrenia

  • Severe depression

  • Severe anxiety

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Psychosis exhibiting hallucinations and delusions

The history of first generation antipsychotics

The use of antipsychotics as medication began in 1933 in France. The research around developing antihistamines evolved into the introduction of promethazine. This drug produced sedative side effects, so doctors started prescribing it before surgeries as a calming agent.

Eventually, a doctor studied the derivatives of promethazine, altered it, and developed chlorpromazine. It was mostly used as a pre-surgery anti-anxiety pill, until psychiatrists took note of the calming effect of the drug and began prescribing it to their patients.

Prior to chlorpromazine, the options for treating psychotic patients were electroconvulsive therapy, hydrotherapy, and putting patients in an insulin coma. None of those are antipsychotic in nature.

When two psychiatrists, Dr. Delay and Dr. Deniker, gave 38 psychotic patients a test round of chlorpromazine, they noticed the patients were calmer, and also less psychotic—they had less delusional thinking, fewer hallucinations, and fewer psychomotor-agitation symptoms. Deniker and Delay began giving talks on the benefits of the drug, and in 1955, chlorpromazine became available in the United States. Chlorpromazine is still used today as a treatment for different mental illnesses and mood disorders.

Once the government saw the positive effects of chlorpromazine, it began to shut down mental health facilities. There was no longer as large of a need to house psychotic patients, and they saw an opportunity to cut costs. However, they did not create adequate sources in the community for ongoing care. California alone is estimated to have 40-60% of homeless people that have a mental disorder.

Once chlorpromazine became a success, pharmaceutical companies rushed to create their own version of an antipsychotic drug. Because chlorpromazine was the grandfather of the first generation of antipsychotic drugs, the rest of that generation can be categorized by their ability to merely block dopamine D2 receptors in the brain.

In repeated studies, dopamine antagonism is responsible for 92% of their effectiveness. It also led to the thought that people were psychotic because they had too much dopamine. Since then we have found that their are much more complex psychopharmacological dynamics going on in psychosis.   

Second generation antipsychotics

The next set of antipsychotics that came on the market were clozapineolanzapine, risperidone, and other related drugs. Those medications had less effects on motor movement than the first generation drugs.

Clozapine is a poor antagonist of dopamine- blocking 30-40% of dopamine receptors but also promotes the activation of glutamate through activation of NMDA receptor, which increases activity in the frontal lobe (which helps with schizophrenia’s negative symptoms).  

Clozapine had more system-wide changes than just dopamine suppression, and it had more positive response from patients. It was more effective—40-60% of people who won’t respond to a first generation antipsychotic, do respond to clozapine.

However, in Finland in 1975, 6 people taking clozapine died due to agranulocytosis (lowered white blood cell count, leading to a severe lack of immunity). A lowered neutrophil count (called agranulocytosis) can show potential problems with fighting off normal bacteria we live with all the time.  When patients are on clozapine, initially they need weekly blood checks for this reason.

Despite the risks, clozapine can be an incredible drug—I have one patient who was schizophrenic and homeless, and she is now back in school and recently graduated with a perfect GPA! People who had been dysfunctional for decades, who are given clozapine, can become extremely high functioning.  Key to success here was her willingness to work with me, despite having to try different things before something worked. 

A trial run on a antipsychotic should be done at a minimum of 6 weeks, and blood tests must be conducted to make sure that the concentration of the medicine is at good therapeutic-dose levels. Dosage alone is sometimes not enough because we all metabolise drugs so differently.  I have uploaded recommended levels in my resource page.

Third generation antipsychotics

What is deemed the third generation of antipsychotics, aripiprazole and brexpiprazole are partial dopamine receptor agonists.  They keep dopamine at a max of 25% in the brain which due to the high affinity to the receptor it does not vary much based on dose.  

The good thing about this generation of drugs is that they don’t lower blood pressure, cause insulin resistance, and are not sedating in nature.

It works for some people, it doesn’t for others. But when it does work, it works really well.

Side effects of psychiatric medicines

Akathisia is the inability to stay still, characterized by a feeling of inner busyness. It is a miserable side effect, exhausting to the patient.

If someone is experiencing this, they should immediately call their psychiatrist or go to an emergency room.

One of Dr. Cumming’s patients described it as “ants running up and down the bones of his legs.” It usually involves an anxious feeling, and a desire to move the lower extremities of the legs. Akathisia can be caused by any drug that lowers dopamine (including SSRIs).

This syndrome is so complex because it involves several compounds, including dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and serotonin inputs. Options for treatment include: choosing a lower dosage, picking another dopamine antagonist that is less strong (quetiapine or clozaril), or prescribing a drug like amantadine, propranolol, mirtazapine or clonazepam (more nuance in the podcast on this).

It is a harmful disorder, and one to watch out for in patients. If a patient is sent home from the hospital experiencing these symptoms, but is not properly vetted for akathisia, a doctor could be subject to serious legal repercussions.

The questions to test a patient for akathisia are:

  • Is the person moving? Can they not sit still?

  • What is their internal sense of restlessness and anxiety?

  • How much are they distressed by these feelings?

Acute dystonia involves muscle spasms and it affects movement, causing the posture to twist abnormally. It can be painful for patients to experience. This occurs because of too little dopamine in the basal ganglia part of the brain.

Parkinsonism involves muscle stiffness and slower movements. It’s usually uncomfortable, but not a miserable side effect. This also occurs because of too little dopamine in the basal ganglia part of the brain.

The future of antipsychotics

With each generation of new medicines, we’ve gotten closer to being able to help people stabilize their psychosis. We haven’t been able to achieve complete wellness.

Dr. Cummings says he has hope that with further advances in the medical field, we will be able to identify who is at risk. There is hopeful data that we may be able to one day prevent the development of schizophrenia.


History of Antipsychotics (notes by Arvy Tj Wuysang).

  • 1933, France

    • Initiative to develop antihistamine as treatment began

    1. 1947

      • Promethazine

        • Produced sedation and calmness in animal models

        • Not highly effective in humans, but found to provide calmness in preoperative settings

    2. 1950

      • Discovery of Promethazine Derivatives, especially Chlorpromazine

        • Initially tried in a surgical military hospital in France by Dr. Henri Laborit (1914-1995)

        • Successful in making people calm and indifferent to impending surgery

        • The medication was tried it in a volunteer

          • The individual reported favorable effects, until he stood up and promptly fainted

          • Determined as not safe in pre-operative setting because it was too effective as alpha-adrenergic antagonist in lowering blood pressure

    3. 1952

      • Dr. Pierre Deniker (1917-1998), psychiatrist, with Dr. Jean Delay (1907-1987), his superintendent in Sainte-Anne’s Hospital in Paris, led the Chlorpromazine introduction as a psychopharmacologic agent

        • They were interested in the calming effect of the drug

        • Tried the drug in psychotic agitated patients

          • Treatment options in those days were limited to:

            • Electroconvulsive Therapy

            • Hydrotherapy

            • Insulin coma

          • None of which were antipsychotic in nature

        • Tried it in 38 patients, made patients calmer, and less psychotic!

          • Especially effective for positive psychotic symptoms like hallucinations, delusional thinking, psychomotor agitation

        • Findings were impressive enough that Deniker began giving talks about the drug, including a conference in Montreal, that led to its introduction in North America

    4. 1955

      • Chlorpromazine was approved for usage as antipsychotic in the US

      • Subsequently used worldwide

      • Led to the deinstitutionalization of a lot of psychotic patients

        • Created a problem of lack of follow up of psychotic patients

          • I.e. California has around 357,000 homeless individuals, estimated 40-60% suffer from mental disorder with schizophrenia spectrum highly represented in that percentage

          • State spends about $200,000 per year per person to care for people committed to state hospitals. Funds committed to patients that are discharged from state hospitals are very minimal.

      • Led to development of a whole host of antipsychotic agents

    5. 1960s

      • There was an explosion in the invention of antipsychotic drugs

      • US FDA took a stance, did not allow approval of antipsychotic drugs that are not clearly better than chlorpromazine or haloperidol

      • 1st generation antipsychotics all work by blocking Dopamine D2 receptors in the brain, counts for 92-23% of variance in mechanism

      • Led to the simplistic dopamine hypothesis of psychosis

    6. 1958

      • 2nd generation antipsychotic discovered by Eichenberger and Schmutz from the Swiss pharmaceutical company Wander AG, Clozapine

      • Created because 2 other -antadine antipsychotics have been successful, Loxitane (Loxapine) and Perlapine

      • Clozapine was initially thought of as a failure because it did not produce dystonia in white lab mice, as expected in 1st generation antipsychotics where it blocks dopamine effects in the brain

      • Clozapine found to be a poor antagonist to dopamine, only blocks 30-40% of dopamine receptors. Although, it promotes release of glutamate, by binding to an allosteric site for glycine in the NMDA receptor, which in turn increases activity in the frontal lobe and suppresses dopamine release in the mesolimbic system.

      • A number of small studies in the 1960s found that patients that don’t respond to 1st generation antipsychotics responded well to Clozapine treatment by showing better response of both positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia.

    7. 1970s

      • 1972, Clozapine usage was introduced in Austria

      • 1974, Clozapine usage was introduced in Germany

      • 40-60% of people that did not respond well to 1st generation antipsychotics, responded well to Clozapine

      • 1975, 5 people in Finland died after Clozapine treatment due to agranulocytosis

        • Clozapine found to trigger formation of antibodies targeting bone marrow cells that make neutrophils and essentially shut down a person’s immune system

        • Must monitor Absolute Neutrophil Count closely when prescribing Clozapine

          • Monitor weekly for 6 months, then every 2 weeks for another 6 months, and monthly for another year (in the USA)

          • Risk for agranulocytosis decreases with time: peaks at 4 months of exposure at about 1.3%, .38% after 1 year of exposure, .06% after 2 years of exposure

    8. Clozapine usage in the US today

      • Siskind, D., McCartney, L., Goldschlager, R., & Kisely, S. (2016). Clozapine v. first-and second-generation antipsychotics in treatment-refractory schizophrenia: systematic review and meta-analysis. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 209(5), 385-392.

      • 15-20% of patients in California State Hospitals are on Clozapine, 53% in New York State

      • Response rates to drugs other than Clozapine is pretty miserable in State Hospitals

      • Olanzapine response rate even at high plasma concentrations is only 9%, compared to 40-60% for Clozapine. Every other antipsychotics’ response rate is between 0-5% for the severely psychotic, mentally ill patients.

      • If patients meet Kane criteria (after John M. Kane)---treatment failure after two clearly adequate trials of antipsychotic treatment with minimum of 6 weeks duration with therapeutic plasma concentration---odds that they will respond to anything other than Clozapine is fairly low.

      • Common mistake that clinicians make is to go by dosage as a measure of whether a person is receiving adequate medication

        • Dosages only weakly correlates with plasma concentration since the metabolism of antipsychotic drugs is so variable

        • Measuring plasma concentration to reach therapeutic levels is crucial in antipsychotic drugs administration, especially in patients who are seemingly refractory to treatment, to ensure adequate treatment

      • Akathisia as side effect of antipsychotics

        • Very rarely happens with Clozapine use

        • Akathisia is a very miserable side effect of antipsychotics, described as “ants crawling up and down the bone of your legs” by a particular patient

        • Characterized both by internal sense of anxiety and a near irresistible urge to move

        • Barnes Akathisia Rating Scale, most commonly used to measure akathisia symptoms. Based on three main factors:

          • Objective movement

          • Internal sense of restlessness and anxiety

          • How much are they distressed by these feelings

        • Akathisia is a concerning and common reason for malpractice

        • Underlying pathophysiology of akathisia is distinct compared to other extrapyramidal symptoms, involves not only dopamine and acetylcholine. It also involves norepinephrine and serotonin inputs to basal ganglia, makes it a difficult syndrome to treat successfully.

        • Treatment options for akathisia:

        • Akathisia may present as side effect in SSRIs and antiemetics (compazine)

  • Expected or Therapeutic plasma concentration ranges for antipsychotics and mood stabilizers

  • Aripiprazole (Abilify)

    • 3rd generation antipsychotics, partial dopamine agonist

    • Has high affinity for dopamine receptors, higher than 1st and 2nd generation antipsychotics. If Aripiprazole is present at therapeutic concentrations, 1st and 2nd generation will have very little interaction with dopamine receptors.

    • Keeps dopamine signaling at about 25% of dopamine’s maximum signal transduction, tends to produce all or nothing response in terms of treating psychotics. Not much ability to vary where dopamine is blocked because of it’s high affinity.

    • Side effect profile is very favorable. Largely metabolically neutral, tend not to cause weight gain, glucose intolerance, and lipid abnormalities. Low affinity for alpha receptors or histamine receptors, is not very sedating and does not lower blood pressure.

    • Use outside of schizophrenia

      • I.e. risperidone and olanzapine also exhibit utility as mood stabilizer and antidepressant.

      • 3rd generation antipsychotics also tend to improve mood, driven by quality of the molecules and in part by the desire of pharmaceutical companies to broaden their market

      • Use in dissociative state, such as Borderline Personality Disorder

        • Antipsychotics can help bring patients out of dissociative state in short period of time

        • Borderline patients was found to have a significant limbic dysfunction, hence antipsychotics may be helpful

  • Future of Schizophrenia Spectrum Treatment

    • There is great need to identify individuals at risk for the disease and treat them with lower dose of antipsychotics. Hopeful data is currently present in support of this approach to lower the incidence and prevalence of schizophrenia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Psychiatric Medications Work with Dr. Cummings

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This week I interviewed Dr. Cummings, a psychopharmacologist, on the Psychiatry and Psychotherapy Podcast. Below is a brief introduction to the episode. For more detailed notes by Dr. Cummings, go to my resource page.  

What is psychopharmacology?

Psychopharmacology is a branch of psychiatry that deals with medications that affect the way the brain works. The medicines used in psychopharmacology treat illnesses whose primary concerns and issues are mood, cognitive processes, behavioral control, and major mental disorders.

It is a unique branch of pharmacology because the illnesses are usually addressed by both medication and psychotherapy.

What makes a drug psychiatric in nature?

What makes a drug labeled as psychotherapeutic, is the intent behind the prescription. Some drugs will serve more than one purpose, so understanding why it was prescribed is important. For example, valproic acid is helpful in treating seizure disorders, and also bipolar disorder. For the seizure disorder, it would not be considered a psychotherapeutic drug. For the bipolar disorder, it would be considered a psychotherapeutic drug.

How do medications work?

All medicines go through the same steps of digestion in our bodies. They are liquified in the stomach, and then absorbed. The drug travels through the liver, and then into the blood supply, which brings it to the organ it was designed to target.

Our bodies have receptor sites, made of protein, that sit on the surface of a neuron, or a nerve cell in the brain. The drug, when it reaches that receptor, either binds to it and blocks it, or it can help the neurotransmitter work to further what it does naturally.

For example, caffeine is an adenosine blocker. Adenosine is a naturally occurring molecule in our bodies that calms us down as the day wears on, preparing us for sleep. Caffeine, as a drug, blocks our natural adenosine from reaching its receptor; it keeps us awake.

Medicines work in the same way—inhibiting or helping certain molecules reach their targeted organs.

How absorption and dosage rates affect medicine

Many things can affect absorption rate, and medications absorb at different rates, and at different potencies.

Things like gastric bypass, (when they take out a part of the stomach and intestines) can affect absorption rate of drugs. One of my patients had a stomach surgery, and afterwards, their depression came back. I told them to start grinding their pills to help with absorption rate of their antidepressant, and their medication started working again.

Our livers play the main part in absorption. Sometimes they are gatekeepers, and they can hinder absorption rates dramatically. Animals and plants have been at war for thousands of years. Plants create toxins to try to discourage animals from eating them. Our livers develop different enzymes to break down those toxins in order to make the plants safe for our bodies. Those same enzymes break down medications. Our bodies are constantly adapting and changing, adjusting to what we consume.

As a psychiatrist, it’s important to pay attention to absorption rates to make sure our patients are getting maximum benefit. Maybe a patient has defected genes that limit absorption rate, or deficient enzymes to break down the medication. Or maybe other medications are interacting and changing absorption rates.

A few times in my practice I have seen patients come in on multiple medications which are interacting poorly. For example, they are on a medication called amitriptyline and also on something that blocks its breakdown like fluoxetine. In our session they complain that they are confused and disoriented. I figure out that the drugs they’ve been prescribed is either inhibiting, interacting with, or increasing the effect of another medication. Once we learn that, we can make changes to their prescriptions, and they return to feeling normal.

When you change the concentration of a medication, you can destroy the entire point of the prescription in the first place. There are numerous computer programs that can help us determine problems with drug interactions. Those programs can sometimes point out what could become a clinical problem, but often point out minor, irrelevant interactions.

Just prescribing medicines, without taking into account the individual ecosystems we each have, is often a practice of trial and error. With properly administered tests and observation, we can move towards an effective dose and effective treatment plan.

Because there are so many things that can change a drug level in the body, taking a plasma concentration may be the best way to assess if the dose is appropriate (check out my resource page for a list of appropriate levels). A high or low blood level might hint that the person is a rapid metabolizer, poor metabolizer, has GI issues with absorption, or has other medications or supplements that are increasing or decreasing the dose.  

How to reduce negative side effects

One of the reasons that people develop problems with psychiatric side effects to medications is because they are increased too fast. There is a balance between wanting to get someone to an appropriate dose, and minimizing side effects.  

Too often, patients are prescribed a medication at full force and, due to sudden side effects patients will quit taking the medication.

If the medicines were administered in a slower onramp, giving time and attention to their perceived absorption rates and side effects, many problems with those medications would stop.

Is therapy or medication more helpful?

There are many trains of thought on psychotherapy and medication. Some people want a pill to fix everything. However, not everything is a chemical imbalance in the body and can be fixed with a pill.

If someone comes to me with a psychiatric problem, I almost always recommend psychotherapy, and often prescribe medication. Medications help, especially if someone has severe mental illness. If levels are mild to moderate, I find psychotherapy and lifestyle changes (like strength training and diet) are more effective for long term success.

Rates of prescribing medication has increased and use of psychotherapy has decreased. Too many patients are taking medication without psychotherapy or lifestyle changes. One study shows that 73% of antidepressants are prescribed by primary care physicians (Mojtabai, 2008).  Antidepressant use has increased from 1996 to 2005 from 6% to 10% while rates of therapy have gone down from 31% to 20% for those on antidepressants (Olfson, 2009).

Because of that, people are not being treated in the most effective way possible. This is especially the case when considering the treatment of psychological trauma, for which talk therapy can cure in ways medications can not.

Through both medications and psychotherapy, we can rewire the brain. In one study on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), two groups of people were studied—those who underwent cognitive behavioral therapy, and those that took medication. The therapy was found to be as helpful in eliminating OCD symptoms. However, the OCD symptoms returned when the medication was stopped. The symptoms did not return when the person had received cognitive behavioral therapy.

Dr. Cummings uses a simple guideline to see if someone would benefit from medicine or talk therapy. If what the person is depressed about is something in their lifestyle—their weight, their job, their relationship, lifestyle changes and talk therapy will probably be most effective.

If someone is experiencing neurovegetative symptoms of depression, such as: loss of appetite or increased appetite, severe energy loss, severe sleep disturbance with early morning awakening, physically slowed down, they are suffering from brain disturbances that are helped by medication.

For more notes by Dr. Cummings, go to my resource page.  

Mojtabai, R., & Olfson, M. (2008). National patterns in antidepressant treatment by psychiatrists and general medical providers: results from the national comorbidity survey replication. The Journal of clinical psychiatry.


Olfson, M., & Marcus, S. C. (2009). National patterns in antidepressant medication treatment. Archives of general psychiatry, 66(8), 848-856.


See below for notes on the episode writen by Arvy Tj Wuysang.  

  • Defining Psychopharmacology and Psychopharmacologic Agents

    • Psychopharmacology: Study of medications and substances that affect how the brain works, both positively and negatively

    • “Intent” in using versatile drug classes as psychotherapeutic agents

      • Valproic Acid usage as an anti-epileptic drug vs mood disorder drug

      • Caffeine usage as stimulant

  • Metabolism and Physiologic Distribution of Psychopharmacologic Agents

    • Gastrointestinal surgeries and their effect on psychiatric drugs’ absorption

      • Olanzapine will not be absorbed as effectively in individuals who had Gastric Bypass Surgery because of its slow absorption. Lorazepam, on the other hand, has a characteristically rapid absorption and will not have much disturbance in its absorption even in the context of post Gastric Bypass Surgery.

    • Properties of drug absorption within the liver

      • Cytochrome P450 enzymes

        • Evolutionary developed to metabolize plant toxins

        • Common classes that plays significant role in psychiatric drug metabolism

          • 2D6, 2A4, 1A2

      • Interaction with other drugs

        • 2D6 blockers (Fluoxetine, Paroxetine, Bupropion) will elevate plasma Amitriptyline levels.

        • Inducers will decrease plasma levels

      • Benefits of using drug-drug interaction applications/softwares

      • Importance of monitoring plasma levels versus genetic testing in determining effective/safe dosage

      • UCLA Imipramine Titration Study

        • If receptors are given time to adapt to the medications, oftentimes side effects may be minimal

        • Imipramine titration goal of 150 mg

          • 1st group: increase of 25 mg increments per week

            • experienced significant side effects (sleepy, dry mouth, low BP)

          • 2nd group: increase of 10 mg increments per week

            • achieved the same blood levels as the first group but experienced minimal side effects

  • How do psychiatric drugs work?

  • How long should one stay on antidepressants?

    • Dependent on frequency and severity of depressive episodes

      • Single depressive episode

        • Treat to remission, keep in remission for 1 year, gradually taper the antidepressant

      • 2-3 episodes of depression

        • Essentially, needs to stay on antidepressants permanently

        • Remains vulnerable to depression

        • Antidepressants ameliorates symptoms, but does not cure underlying pathophysiology

        • Each episode makes the next episode more likely!

      • Analogous to Diabetes Mellitus treatment

        • I.e., Blood sugar needs to be controlled for the rest of the patient’s life

  • How do we determine between using medications versus lifestyle therapy in treating psychiatric conditions?

    • Depends on presentation

      • If merely dysphoric, can start by introducing lifestyle changes

      • If greater severity, showing neurovegetative signs, may start with medications right away

        • Neurovegetative signs: Loss/increase of appetite, significant weight changes, severe loss of energy, severe sleep disturbance, psychomotor agitation/reduction

  • Pathophysiology of Depression


Dr. Cummings has recommended these articles to read along with this session (thank you Mona Mojtahedzadeh M.D. for organizing them and adding some notes):

 

1. Duman, R. S., & Aghajanian, G. K. (2012). Synaptic dysfunction in depression: potential therapeutic targets. science, 338(6103), 68-72.

  • Depression is associated with reduced brain size and decreased neuronal synapses in regions that regulate mood and cognition (the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus).

  • Antidepressants can block or reverse these deficits.

  • Typical antidepressants have limited efficacy and delayed response times (weeks to months).

  • Ketamine is a N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor antagonist that has been proven to produces antidepressant responses in patients who are resistant to typical antidepressants within hours.

  • Ketamine has been shown to rapidly induce synaptogenesis.

  • Ketamine can also reverse the synaptic deficits caused by chronic stress.

  • Findings highlight the importance of a synaptogenic hypothesis of depression and treatment response.

2. Thompson, J., Thomas, N., Singleton, A., Piggott, M., Lloyd, S., Perry, E. K., ... & Ferrier, I. N. (1997). D2 dopamine receptor gene (DRD2) Taq1 A polymorphism: reduced dopamine D2 receptor binding in the human striatum associated with the A1 allele. Pharmacogenetics, 7(6), 479-484.

3. Hyman, S. E., & Nestler, E. J. (1996). Initiation and adaptation: a paradigm for understanding psychotropic drug action. The American journal of psychiatry, 153(2), 151.

4. Tracy, T. S., Chaudhry, A. S., Prasad, B., Thummel, K. E., Schuetz, E. G., Zhong, X. B., ... & Tay-Sontheimer, J. (2016). Interindividual Variability in Cytochrome P450–Mediated Drug Metabolism. Drug Metabolism and Disposition, 44(3), 343-351.

5. Hunsberger, J., Austin, D. R., Henter, I. D., & Chen, G. (2009). The neurotrophic and neuroprotective effects of psychotropic agents. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 11(3), 333.

6. psychotropic medications: overview seminar core handout

7. McCutcheon, R., Beck, K., Bloomfield, M. A., Marques, T. R., Rogdaki, M., & Howes, O. D. (2015). Treatment resistant or resistant to treatment? Antipsychotic plasma levels in patients with poorly controlled psychotic symptoms. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 29(8), 892-897.

  • Big number of patients with schizophrenia have poor response to antipsychotics medications.

  • Possible causes are subtherapeutic plasma levels of the medication or medication ineffectiveness.

  • This study examines 36 patients with treatment resistant schizophrenia and assesses the extent of subtherapeutic antipsychotic plasma levels and the frequency of antipsychotic plasma level monitoring in standard clinical practice.

  • Antipsychotic plasma levels were found to have been measured in only one patient in the year prior to our study.

  • Over one-third of patients had subtherapeutic antipsychotic levels.

  • In detail: sixteen (44%) patients showed either undetectable (19%) or subtherapeutic levels (25%), and 20 (56%) patients had levels in the therapeutic range.

  • Black ethnicity, shorter duration of current treatment, and antipsychotics other than olanzapine and amisulpride were factors significantly associated with subtherapeutic plasma levels.

  • This study indicates higher chances for under-treatment rather than treatment-resistance for those patients with poor response to antipsychotic medications.

  • On another note, the measurement of antipsychotic levels may be under-utilised.

Prescribing Strength Training for Depression

Recent studies show the power of strength training in treating depression. This blog and podcast episode discuss this important treatment of depression.

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