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Keywords:

  • adolescent;
  • bipolar disorder;
  • child;
  • diagnosis;
  • longitudinal course;
  • mania;
  • phenomenology;
  • prepubertal;
  • recovery;
  • relapse

Objective: Phenomenology, assessment, longitudinal, and psychosocial findings from an ongoing, controlled, prospective study of 93 subjects with a prepubertal and early adolescent bipolar disorder phenotype (PEA-BP) will be reviewed.

Methods: Unlike adult-onset bipolar disorder, for which there were over 50 years of systematic investigations, there were a paucity of rigorous data and much controversy and skepticism about the existence and characteristics of prepubertal-onset mania. With this background, issues to address for investigation of child-onset mania included the following: (i) What to do about the differentiation of mania from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). (ii) How to deal with the ubiquity of irritability as a presenting symptom in multiple child psychiatry disorders. (iii) Development of a research instrument to assess prepubertal manifestations of adult mania (i.e. children do not ‘max out’ credit cards or have four marriages). (iv) How to distinguish normal childhood happiness and expansiveness from pathologically impairing elated mood and grandiosity.

Results: To address these issues, a PEA-BP phenotype was defined as DSM-IV mania with elated mood and/or grandiosity as one inclusion criterion. This criterion ensured that the diagnosis of mania was not made using only criteria that overlapped with those for ADHD, and that subjects had at least one of the two cardinal symptoms of mania (i.e. elated mood and grandiose behaviors). Subjects were aged 10.9 years (SD = 2.6) and age of onset of the current episode at baseline was 7.3 years (SD = 3.5). Validation of PEA-BP was shown by reliable assessment, 6-month stability, and 1- and 2-year diagnostic longitudinal outcome. PEA-BP resembled the severest form of adult-onset mania by presenting with a chronic, mixed mania, psychotic, continuously (ultradian) cycling picture.

Conclusion: Counterintuitively, typical 7-year-old children with PEA-BP were more severely ill than typical 27 year olds with adult-onset mania. Moreover, longitudinal data strongly supported differentiation of PEA-BP from ADHD.