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Original Investigation
January 15, 2020

Effects of Family-Focused Therapy vs Enhanced Usual Care for Symptomatic Youths at High Risk for Bipolar Disorder: A Randomized Clinical Trial

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Los Angeles
  • 2Department of Psychiatry, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Denver
  • 3Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California
  • 4Department of Biostatistics, Fielding School of Public Health, UCLA, Los Angeles
  • 5Private practice, Menlo Park, California
JAMA Psychiatry. Published online January 15, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.4520
Key Points

Question  Is family-focused therapy for youths at high risk for bipolar disorder effective in delaying mood disorder episodes?

Findings  This randomized clinical trial included 127 youths (aged 9-17 years) with symptomatic mood disorder and a family history of bipolar disorder. For a mean of 2 years, youths at high risk for bipolar disorder who received 12 sessions of family-focused therapy (psychoeducation, communication, and problem-solving skills training) with their families had longer well intervals between mood episodes compared with youths who received less intensive family and individual psychoeducation.

Meaning  The findings suggest that family-focused therapy is associated with longer times between mood episodes among youths at high risk for bipolar disorder.


Importance  Behavioral high-risk phenotypes predict the onset of bipolar disorder among youths who have parents with bipolar disorder. Few studies have examined whether early intervention delays new mood episodes in high-risk youths.

Objective  To determine whether family-focused therapy (FFT) for high-risk youths is more effective than standard psychoeducation in hastening recovery and delaying emergence of mood episodes during the 1 to 4 years after an active period of mood symptoms.

Design, Settings, and Participants  This multisite randomized clinical trial included referred youths (aged 9-17 years) with major depressive disorder or unspecified (subthreshold) bipolar disorder, active mood symptoms, and at least 1 first- or second-degree relative with bipolar disorder I or II. Recruitment started from October 6, 2011, and ended on September 15, 2016. Independent evaluators interviewed participants every 4 to 6 months to measure symptoms for up to 4 years. Data analysis was performed from March 13 to November 3, 2019.

Interventions  High-risk youths and parents were randomly allocated to FFT (12 sessions in 4 months of psychoeducation, communication training, and problem-solving skills training; n = 61) or enhanced care (6 sessions in 4 months of family and individual psychoeducation; n = 66). Youths could receive medication management in either condition.

Main Outcomes and Measures  The coprimary outcomes, derived using weekly psychiatric status ratings, were time to recovery from prerandomization symptoms and time to a prospectively observed mood (depressive, manic, or hypomanic) episode after recovery. Secondary outcomes were time to conversion to bipolar disorder I or II and longitudinal symptom trajectories.

Results  All 127 participants (82 [64.6%] female; mean [SD] age, 13.2 [2.6] years) were followed up for a median of 98 weeks (range, 0-255 weeks). No differences were detected between treatments in time to recovery from pretreatment symptoms. High-risk youths in the FFT group had longer intervals from recovery to the emergence of the next mood episode (χ2 = 5.44; P = .02; hazard ratio, 0.55; 95% CI, 0.48-0.92;), and from randomization to the next mood episode (χ2 = 4.44; P = .03; hazard ratio, 0.59; 95% CI, 0.35-0.97) than youths in enhanced care. Specifically, FFT was associated with longer intervals to depressive episodes (log-rank χ2 = 6.24; P = .01; hazard ratio, 0.53; 95% CI, 0.31-0.88) but did not differ from enhanced care in time to manic or hypomanic episodes, conversions to bipolar disorder, or symptom trajectories.

Conclusions and Relevance  Family skills-training for youths at high risk for bipolar disorder is associated with longer times between mood episodes. Clarifying the relationship between changes in family functioning and changes in the course of high-risk syndromes merits future investigation.

Trial Registration  ClinicalTrials.gov identifier: NCT01483391.

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