Re-evaluating the prevalence of and diagnostic composition within the broad clinical spectrum of bipolar disorders
Until recently it was believed that no more than 1% of the general population has bipolar disorder. Emerging transatlantic data are beginning to provide converging evidence for a higher prevalence of up to at least 5%. Manic states, even those with mood-incongruent features, as well as mixed (dysphoric) mania, are now formally included in both ICD-10 and DSM-IV. Mixed states occur in an average of 40% of bipolar patients over a lifetime; current evidence supports a broader definition of mixed states consisting of full-blown mania with two or more concomitant depressive symptoms. The largest increase in prevalence rates, however, is accounted for by 'softer' clinical expressions of bipolarity situated between the extremes of full-blown bipolar disorder where the person has at least one manic episode (bipolar I) and strictly defined unipolar major depressive disorder without personal or family history for excited periods. Bipolar II is the prototype for these intermediary conditions with major depressions and history of spontaneous hypomanic episodes; current evidence indicates that most hypomanias pursue a recurrent course and that their usual duration is 1-3 days, falling below the arbitrary 4-day cutoff required in DSM-IV. Depressions with antidepressant-associated hypomania (sometimes referred to as bipolar III) also appear, on the basis of extensive international research neglected by both ICD-10 and DSM-IV, to belong to the clinical spectrum of bipolar disorders. Broadly defined, the bipolar spectrum in studies conducted during the last decade accounts for 30-55% of all major depressions. Rapid-cycling, defined as alternation of depressive and excited (at least four per year), more often arise from a bipolar II than a bipolar I baseline; such cycling does not in the main appear to be a distinct clinical subtype - but rather a transient complication in 20% in the long-term course of bipolar disorder. Major depressions superimposed on cyclothymic oscillations represent a more severe variant of bipolar II, often mistaken for borderline or other personality disorders in the dramatic cluster. Moreover, atypical depressive features with reversed vegetative signs, anxiety states, as well as alcohol and substance abuse comorbidity, is common in these and other bipolar patients. The proper recognition of the entire clinical spectrum of bipolarity behind such 'masks' has important implications for psychiatric research and practice. Conditions which require further investigation include: (1) major depressive episodes where hyperthymic traits - lifelong hypomanic features without discrete hypomanic episodes - dominate the intermorbid or premorbid phases; and (2) depressive mixed states consisting of few hypomanic symptoms (i.e., racing thoughts, sexual arousal) during full-blown major depressive episodes - included in Kraepelin's schema of mixed states, but excluded by DSM-IV. These do not exhaust all potential diagnostic entities for possible inclusion in the clinical spectrum of bipolar disorders: the present review did not consider cyclic, seasonal, irritable-dysphoric or otherwise impulse-ridden, intermittently explosive or agitated psychiatric conditions for which the bipolar connection is less established. The concept of bipolar spectrum as used herein denotes overlapping clinical expressions, without necessarily implying underlying genetic homogeneity. In the course of the illness of the same patient, one often observes the varied manifestations described above - whether they be formal diagnostic categories or those which have remained outside the official nosology. Some form of life charting of illness with colored graphic representation of episodes, stressors, and treatments received can be used to document the uniquely varied course characteristic of each patient, thereby greatly enhancing clinical evaluation.