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Home – Child Mental Health Blog

Autism Severity Criteria Has Dropped

Posted: February 3rd, 2017 by David Rettew

The increased prevalence of autism over the last several decades has been widely reported with rates now peaking at around 1 in 68 children, according to the CDC.  This rise has triggered alarm in many circles as well as mass speculation over its potential causes, including the widely discredited hypothesis regarding vaccines.  Tempering this concern, however, is the commonly held view that what appears to be a new epidemic probably isn’t, and that the increase in number of cases is mainly due to three main factors, namely 1) increased awareness and screening of autism, 2) a shifting from other developmental diagnosis to autism over the years, and 3) a reduction in the severity threshold for what qualifies for an autism diagnosis.  Regarding #3, this means that the diagnosis used to be mainly reserved for children who manifested very apparent and severe symptoms but more recently has been increasingly invoked for individuals with much milder, although still impairing, challenges.  Yet despite the broad consensus about this hypothesis, direct evidence to support it has been lacking….until now.

Researchers recently published data from an Australian registry that contained information on new autism cases between the years 200 and 2006: a time during which the rate of autism rose sharply.  The official diagnoses in these cases came from a standardized procedure and included an experienced clinician’s rating of the severity of individual symptoms as mild/moderate or extreme.  For a portion of the sample, the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale was also performed.

A total of 1252 cases were analyzed, all under 18 years of age.  The main finding was that the number of individuals who were rated as having extreme levels of many diagnostic criteria, or who had extreme levels of any symptom, dropped significantly over the study period.  The percentage of individuals who had an extreme rating on any symptom, for example, dropped from 38% to 15% over the study period.  Scores on the Vineland scale also dropped with time.

The authors wrote that theirs was the first study to demonstrate directly that the severity level of symptoms among people newly diagnosed with autism has been decreasing.  They suspect that this phenomenon underlies what appears to be an increasing prevalence of the diagnosis.

In some ways, this is a study that proves something everyone already knew.  Nevertheless, it is important to have some solid data behind a claim that is hopefully reassuring to most people.  At the same time, the data underscore some new questions.  Is it good thing to use this diagnosis for less severely impacted children?  Does it open the door for needed services or cause unnecessary stigma while taking away resources from those who may need it most?  The study also cannot rule out the possibility that a “true” increase is autism is also occurring, albeit at less striking rates.


Whitehouse AJO, et al. Evidence of a Reduction over Time in the Behavioral Severity of Autistic Disorder Diagnoses.  Autism Research 2017; epub ahead of print.


Where Would We Be Without Research?

Posted: January 12th, 2017 by David Rettew

(Editor’s Note:  I am pleased to offer this guest blog by Hannah Frering who is the research coordinator at the Child Emotion Regulation Lab, Vermont Center for Children, Youth, and Families – DCR)

Medicine has come quite a long way since the medieval era where doctors would amputate at the first sign of infection, or would quickly diagnose patients’ terminal problems and send them away without intervention. The advancement of science and technology is the crucial step to how doctors are able to prescribe lifesaving drugs, and control robots that operate on patients. But, how do uncover the science and technology necessary for treatment of medical problems? hannahResearch.

The University of Vermont is a leader of education in the science and technology fields, with the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Honors College, and the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources all performing ground breaking research. Furthermore, clinical and laboratory research being conducted at the University of Vermont Medical Center is central to the mission of the University. Spanning from clinical vaccine trials of a dengue fever vaccine, to neuroimaging assessing the relationship of drugs and the human brain, the UVM College of Medicine hosts 15 academic departments engaging in research.

At any time in the Vermont Center for Children, Youth, and Families, we have multiple studies recruiting for participants both from the pediatric psychiatry clinic and from the community. Principal investigator Dr. Robert Althoff is currently recruiting patients and families through collaboration with the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health. This major project investigates the epigenetic and psychophysiological mechanisms underlying severe forms of childhood psychiatric disorders. This work seeks to understand the long-term consequences of these disorders on psychiatric and non-psychiatric health in adulthood. In addition to this, there are two smaller projects recruiting through the Child Emotion Regulation Lab. One of the other studies is striving to examine the influence of television pacing and attentional symptoms, involving executive functioning. With funding from the University of Vermont Medical Group, Dr. James Hudziak is conducting a large clinical trial of the Vermont Family Based Approach in pediatrics clinics. This new way of treating whole families represents the culmination of years of research on the individual components of wellness, prevention, and family-based intervention. Dr. David Rettew is studying medication utilization at a state level, child temperament, and bullying.

So, why are we investigating these topics? Children diagnosed with psychiatric disorders need assistance to focus, self-regulate, and perform adequately in school. Research in child psychiatry has lagged far behind other medical fields and we are trying to catch up. Research in the Vermont Center for Children, Youth, and Families seeks to connect symptoms found in kids with attentional problems, or self-regulation problems to issues that may arise later in life, like metabolic problems or substance abuse. This research is essential not only for determining causes of psychiatric problems, but leading to solutions.

Interested in participating in research in the VCCYF? Check out our VCCYF and Child Emotion Regulation Lab webpages.

Psychiatric Medication Usage Among Vermont Medicaid-Insured Youth Drops by 42%

Posted: December 12th, 2016 by David Rettew

A new report prepared by Change Healthcare for the Department of Vermont Health Access documents a sharp drop in the number of Vermont Medicaid-insured youth who are prescribed psychiatric medications.  The report stems from a project called Improving the Use of Psychotropic Medications among Children and Youth in Foster Care. Vermont is one of six states involved in the project.

Some of the highlights include the following for Vermont Medicaid-insured youth not in foster care.

  • Between 2012 and 2016, the percentage of youth taking at least one psychiatric medication dropped by about 42% for both the 6-12 age group and the 13-17 age group.  In 2016, approximately 13% of Medicaid insured youth from the ages of 6-12 had taken a psychiatric medication in the past 6 months while for adolescents in 2016 the percentage was just under 20%.
  • For all age groups, ADHD medication usage dropped by about half.
  • Antipsychotics, a class of medications that many clinicians worry about most, had the biggest drop in prevalence, falling  74% in the 6-12 year old age group.  This class of medications continued to drop between 2014 and 2016 while for ADHD medications and antidepressants, the rate was relatively stable across the last 2 years after a more pronounced drop between 2012 and 2014.

While the usage of many types of medications across many age groups dropped, there were some exceptions.  For example, as ADHD medication usage among children under age 6 dropped between 2012 to 2016, the rate increased among those in foster care, although this was due to a very small number of children.    At the same time, antipsychotic usage among very young children in foster care dropped from 1.1% to 0.3%.  Overall, psychiatric medication usage among children in foster care continue to be much higher compared to kids not in foster care, although for many ages and medication classes there appeared to be a modest drop between 2012 and 2016.

The million dollar question, of course, and one that the report does not attempt to answer, is what might be behind these drops in usage. Most likely, the trends are due to a combination of factors some of which are more newsworthy than others. There were increases in the number of kids enrolled in Medicaid during this time and shifting demographics of the new enrollees could have been a factor.  There also, however, appears to be a change in culture with clinicians becoming more cautious about medications while trying to emphasize non-pharmacological treatments and wellness activities.

Another important question is whether or not all of these decreases are a good thing.  Most people, including myself, generally interpret these findings as positive, but the numbers alone can’t tell us the degree to which these usage decreases represent a more balanced approach to child emotional-behavioral problems versus the reduction of treatment among those who need it.  Further study is planned with these data to understand more fully what may be occurring and why.


ACOs and Psychiatric Care: New Threat or New Opportunity?

Posted: October 7th, 2016 by David Rettew

Like many physicians of all specialties, I’m not exactly sure what to make of the proposal for an all-payer ACO model of healthcare for Vermont.  For someone who has spent the vast majority of time doing clinical work, teaching, and research, the prospect of fully understanding the plan seems like a full-time job.  The Vermont Medical Society, among others, has nicely put a copy of the actual proposal as well as other resources on the website.  In looking at it, I note that it takes the first 3 pages of the 44 page proposal just to explain the terms found in the rest of the document.

photo by napong and freedigitalphotos.net

photo by napong and freedigitalphotos.net

As a psychiatrist, I am very interested in the degree to which the plan could affect our mental health care system for better or for worse.  To that end, I share some specific thoughts about how an all-payer plan might, or might not, fundamentally change the way mental health care is delivered to Vermonters.

First, it seems clear that mental health is front and center in the all-payer plan.  Indeed, 2 of the 4 “population-based health outcomes targets,” which will be one of the main metrics by which the success of the new plan is judged, are directly related to mental health.  One of the targets is to reduce the rate of completed suicides in Vermont to 16 per 100,000 or reduce our national ranking in terms of suicide rate from 7th to at least 20th.   Another target is to reduce the number of substance-abuse related deaths by 10% compared to 2015 levels.  One could even argue that the other two targets that involve 1) keeping flat the prevalence of COPD, diabetes, and hypertension in Vermont, and 2) getting at least 89% of Vermonters paired up with a primary care provider also are closely aligned with mental health, given the increasing research demonstrating that early mental health is not only one of the strongest risk factors for future psychiatric disorders but also for non-psychiatric chronic diseases.

In many ways, it is extremely gratifying to see mental health being given the priority that many of us have felt for a long time it has always deserved.  Yet while the two goals of mortality reduction from suicide and substance abuse are critically important, I hope that we don’t go too far in “teaching to the test,” thereby de-emphasizing many other important mental health initiatives.

Another important point has to do with the implications of doing away with the traditional fee-for-service model of care.  The more that I think about it, the bigger the potential consequences of this change seem.  Psychiatrists will continue to be a scarce resource, and where their time is maximally allocated should be carefully considered.  It might be easy to simply have us continue to go on doing the same thing the same way, but in my view, not at least considering the possibilities for change would be a huge wasted opportunity.

To be sure, I cherish my one-on-one time with children and their families and would be very disappointed to see that time lost to other things.  But I also see the incredible potential of mental health professionals to impact positively on the health of families in creative ways, once the yoke of fee-for-service is lifted.  We may want to consult more closely with primary care providers in their day to day care of Vermonters before they get psychiatrically ill.  We may want to increase our use of technology such as tele-medicine.  We may want to ramp up our use of group treatment relative to individual work.  We may want to work more closely in teams with other types of mental health professionals.  Even things like writing this blog could make a difference.  All of these kids of initiatives were very difficult to enact in a fee-for-service world but, because they can improve both overall mental health and save money, would now be squarely on the table for consideration.

The train is starting to move with us or without us, and we need to invest the effort to figure out where it is going.   There’s no doubt that the system is complicated, that the devil is in the details, and that the landscape ahead is full of both hazards and opportunities.  Ever the optimist, I for one will be trying to hold back my cynicism and look for creative solutions to old problems.


AAP Publishes New Guidelines on Adolescent Suicide Prevention

Posted: September 2nd, 2016 by David Rettew

September marks National Suicide Prevention Month and a chance for all of us to think again about what we can do against this huge public health problem and the number two killer of Vermonters between the ages of 10 and 34.  While we’ve seen increased attention and resources devoted to suicide, there is still a long way to go.  Just imagine the response locally and nationally that would happen if the second leading cause of death was something like a new infectious agent or terrorism.   Indeed,we all Suicide Prevention Monthneed to work against a feeling of complacency that suicides are inevitable and cannot be prevented through the implementation of optimal assessment and intervention strategies.

Just in July 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a new report on suicide from the Committee on Adolescence. The article provides a number of important updates with regard to suicide statistics, trends, and risk factors that incorporate today’s more modern and digital environment.  Some basic information useful to all primary care clinicians include the following.

  • Suicide rates rose 300% from 1950 to 1990 before declining.  Unfortunately, however, this period of decline seems to have stopped with the rate now being on the rise over the past 5-10 years.
  • Males have higher rates of suicide completion while females have more attempts.  The number of attempts to completions is about 1:50 to 1:100.
  • Surveys continue to show an alarming number of high school youth report strong feeling of depression and suicidality, with a startling 14% of high school students nationally reporting have made a plan to attempt suicide in the past year.
  • Suffocation and firearms are the two leading causes of suicide death.  While the presence of firearms in the homes, regardless of how securely stored they are, increases the risk of adolescent suicide, there is data suggesting that secure firearm storage does diminish this risk.
  • 90% of adolescent suicide victims met criteria for a psychiatric disorder, including but not confined to depression.
  • Bullying, both in person and online, is an important risk factor for suicidality.  Perhaps more surprisingly, those who bully others are also at increased risk.
  • An LGBQ orientation increases the risk of suicide.  Transgender youth are also at increased risk, although it is likely that at least some of this risk is related to bullying and nonacceptance.
  • Excessive use (more than 5 hours per day) of using the internet and/or video games increases suicide risk.
  • The way suicides are covered in the media can be related to suicide clusters or contagion.
  • There is concern that the FDA’s decision in 2004 to put a black box warning on antidepressants may have inadvertently led to the underdiagnosis and undertreatment of adolescent depression.  The report outlines a number of different areas of research that are consistent with this hypothesis.

The report also outlines specific recommendations to pediatricians regarding assessment and treatment.  These include the following.

  • Ask questions about suicide, mood disorders, substance use, and other suicide risk factors.  All children between the ages of 11 and 21 should be screened for depression.
  • While the use of screening instruments like the PHQ-9 are recommended, the report emphasizes that these scales should not replace direct questioning.  The article gives very specific suggestions on how to word these questions and bring up the subject.
  • Ask families about access to lethal means such as firearms and medications.  Advise families of patients who are suicidal or at risk of suicide to remove firearms and ammunition from the house.  (I imagine this one is going to be controversial but haven’t looked at the NRA response yet).
  • Educate yourself about suicide, depression, and antidepressants.  Especially if you are in an areas where mental health referrals and consultations are hard to get (probably most primary care docs would say yes to this), consider getting more in-depth training in the diagnosis and management of adolescent mood disorders.
  • Develop good working relationships with other professionals who work in mental health.

Overall the article recognizes suicide is a major public health concern.  It contains quite a bit of important information and specific recommendations and definitely is worth a read not only for pediatricians and family medicine physicians but other mental health professionals as well.

As a bit of a side note, I would also again like to remind folks to try and change some of the language we use when we talk about suicide.  People don’t “commit” suicide, they die from it, and when they do it is hardly something we would want to call “successful.”



Shain B.  Suicide and Suicide Attempts in Adolescents. Pediatrics 2016; epub ahead of print.

Important Resources

Vermont Suicide Prevention Center’s 2015 Vermont Suicide Prevention Platform.  This document has a lot of important and basic information that is nicely prepared and visualized.  It also documents the center’s 11 goals and strategies for reducing suicide in Vermont.

Zero Suicide .  This is a national SAMSHA supported program dedicated to the idea that suicide is preventable with the application of 7 focused areas of care improvement.

AAP Mental Health Toolkit.  This is referenced in the above article.  The full kit needs to be purchased although some information is downloadable for free.

New Video from Stuck in Vermont.  Released on Sept 1, 2016 for Seven Days Vermont and featured on WCAX’s television show The :30, this is the latest video from Stuck in Vermont creator Eva Sollberger.  It features video from family members who have died by suicide and local mental health professionals.  I was happy to be part of this effort.



Study Links Chemical BPA to ADHD Diagnosis

Posted: August 25th, 2016 by David Rettew

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a petrochemical used in the manufacturing of a number of commonly used products including such as reusable water bottles, sports equipment, dental sealants, food cans linings, and adhesives.  There has been a lot of recent attention about BPA due to mounting concerns about possible links between BPA and a number of health problems including cancer, reproductive problems and neurodevelopmental difficulties.  Government agencies have maintained that BPA is safe at low levels, but the public scrutiny has been enough to push the production of many “BPA free” products.  The concern over the neurodevelopmental effects of BPA comes from someBPA animal data suggesting that the chemical can alter dopaminergic activity in the brain.  There have also been a few human studies that have linked BPA and behavioral problems, but these have had some limitations regarding things like sample characteristics and rigor of behavioral assessment.  This new study tries to take the research forward using an older and nationally representative sample and a more stringent assessment for ADHD.

The data for this study comes from the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination survey which queries a nationally representative population-based sample that oversampled some minority groups.  For about 30% of the sample, both urinary BPA levels and ADHD diagnoses were available, resulting in a group of 460 children between the ages of 8 and 15.   ADHD was assessed using a structured diagnostic interview, but could also count if a parent reported that the diagnosis had been made by a medical professional.   A total of 17.3% of the sample met at least one of these two criteria. The association between ADHD and BPA exposure was analyzed using logistic regressions, and the analyses controlled for many potential confounds such as income, prenatal smoke exposure, and blood lead level.

Detectable BPA was found in 97.1% of the sample at widely varying concentrations.  Dividing the sample by mean BPA level (3.9 ug/l), those with higher levels were found to be significantly more likely to have an ADHD diagnosis (11.2% vs 2.9% if assessed through the structured interview).   Looking at a more quantitative association using regression analyses that controlled for confounding variables, children with higher levels of BPA were found to be more than five times as likely to have an ADHD diagnosis (OR 5.86).  This association was found much more strongly in boys with the link in girls being less significant or statistically non-significant in girls, depending upon how ADHD was assessed.

The authors concluded that higher BPA concentrations is associated with ADHD, particularly among boys.

After the study’s release, the article received some publicity but not as much as one might expect given the findings.  This might have occurred because it was published in the less well-known journal, Environmental Research, in the summer.  One certainly might be interested to know if the authors tried to publish the report in a more prominent journal and if they did, why it was not accepted.  I myself can’t see any fatal flaws, although the authors do acknowledge that they only measured BPA once in the study which is probably not the best way to assess its long term presence when it has a half-life of about 6 hours.  Also of interest would be additional analyses to determine if there is some cutoff point beyond which the risk for ADHD is much higher, as the authors in this study used a fairly arbitrary median split for their main result.  At the same time, the fact that these findings were present given the way they divided the sample is somewhat concerning as it suggests that there may be risk associated with BPA levels that are very commonly found.


Tewar S, et al.  Association ofBisphenolAexposureandAttention-Deficit/HyperactivityDisorderinanationalsampleofU.S.children.  Environmental Research.  2016: June 6 epub ahead of print.

Infant Sleep Training Methods Compared

Posted: July 21st, 2016 by David Rettew

The longstanding debate over sleep training methods, in particular those that include some aspect of  “crying it out,” picked up a new chapter recently after a new study was published in the journal Pediatrics.  What was more unique about this study was its head to head comparison of two methods, one using graduated extinction (the technical term for parents delaying their giving comfort to infants for designated periods of time) to what might be described as a more gentle method that does not involve extinction.  These alternative methods have increasingly cropped up due to lingering concerns that extinction-based methods might be experienced as traumatic and disrupt

photo from freedigitalphotos.net

photo from freedigitalphotos.net

parent-child despite there being no direct evidence of this.

In this Australian study,  a total of 43 infants around 10 months of age, all of whom were experiencing sleep problems, were recruited and randomized to one of three groups. One was taught a graduated extinction approach in which parents returned to the crib at progressively longer intervals over the course of a week. Another group used an approach called “bedtime fading” in which the infant’s bedtime was moved forward or backwards until the child sleep latency time was consistently less than 15 minutes. After that, parents were told to do what they normally do for nighttime awakenings. There was also a control group that received sleep educational materials. Sleep was assessed using both questionnaires and more objectively using ankle monitors, and saliva cortisol levels were also ascertained at follow-up as a measure of physiological stress. Attachment status was also assessed with the Strange Situation procedure.

At 3 month follow-up, significant improvements were found for both treatment conditions relative to controls with regard to length of sleep latency time and time to waking after sleep onset. The graduated extinction technique showed improvements relative both to the control and bedtime fading condition for reducing the number of nighttime awakenings, while total sleep time increased for the graduated extinction and control conditions. In terms of markers of stress, afternoon infant cortisol levels and levels of maternal stress were found to decrease for the two behavioral treatment groups relative to controls.  When the sample was assessed again at 12 month follow-up, no group differences were found related to attachment or levels of behavioral problems.

The authors concluded that their data support the effectiveness of brief behavioral sleep interventions without causing long-term stress or behavioral problems.

Will this study end the debate on sleep training?  For sure it will not, but the study does add some additional evidence that such techniques can work and do not represent traumatic experiences for children that result in harm.  At the same time, what might be more novel to some parents and primary care physicians alike is the realization that there are other evidence-based methods out there that have been shown to be effective and may be more palatable to parents than techniques that involve some aspect of crying it out.


GradisarM, et al.  Behavioral Interventions for Infant Sleep Problems: A Randomized Controlled Trial.  Pediatrics 2016; 137(6): epub ahead of print

Stimulant Treatment Linked to Cardiovascular Events in ADHD

Posted: June 30th, 2016 by David Rettew

The debate over whether or not stimulant medications like methylphenidate raise the risk of cardiovascular diseases and events has been going back and forth for years.  Many clinicians will remember the famous comment of Dr. Steven Nissan in a New England Journal of Medicine editorial in 2006 when he hoped that a physician’s hand would “tremble” before writing a stimulant prescription.   Then there was the American Heart Association’s recommendation in 2008 that all children get an ECG before stimulants are started only to have the group backtrack on this shortly thereafter.

photo by cooldesign and freedigitalphotos.net

photo by cooldesign and freedigitalphotos.net

Lately the question has been raised again with this report published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology.  To address some limitation of previous studies, the authors not only compared cardiovascular risk in stimulant users versus non-users but also did this analysis among patients who have received an ADHD diagnosis.  The study used a Danish registry to follow prospectively a group of over 700,000 children.  The main outcome variable was the presence of a cardiovascular disease or event.  This was a somewhat broad designation with the most common diagnoses coded being  cardiovascular disease not otherwise specified (40%) followed by an arrhythmia (23%).  Hypertension was the diagnosis in 8% of those identified as having a cardiovascular event.

Overall, the use of stimulants was found to roughly double the risk of a cardiovascular events both among ADHD patients (hazard ratio=2.20) and compared to the general population (hazard ratio=1.83).  Cardiovascular events were rare, with 170 events occurring among ADHD patients per 100,000 person years compared to 84 events per 100,000 person years for the overall population.

The association between risk and dose was a bit odd.  When looking at the dose taken 12 months prior to the cardiac “event,” higher doses (defined as over 30mg/day of methylphenidate) were found to be associated with higher risk.  When looking at doses taken more closely around the event, however, lower doses (less than 15mg perday) were associated with increased risk.  In addition, among children with known cardiovascular risk, stimulant treatment did not convey significantly increased risk beyond these other factors.  The authors also note that among the 5 ADHD children that experienced a serious cardiovascular event, none had been treated with stimulants.

In trying to put this all together, the authors concluded that stimulant treatment is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events compared both to the general population and to patients with ADHD who do not receive stimulant treatment.

The authors did try to sort out some of their puzzling findings with regard to dose.  While admitting that this was speculative, they wondered if there might be a slight danger in dropping someone from a high stimulant dose to a low one, perhaps via a shortening of the QTc interval via which in turn might be mediated through dopamine transporters that are found on the myocardium.

While the study is important in documenting this association with stimulant even among individuals with ADHD, many questions remain about clinical significance.  It is difficult to know exactly what is meant by “cardiovascular disease not otherwise specified” and other broad terms, especially since some prior studies that used more serious cardiac outcomes have not supported a link with stimulants.  In addition, the nagging questions about increased screening also are not answered with these data.  Of course, one could simply not prescribe stimulants, but then there are also studies linking stimulant treatment with reduced emergency department admissions.  This will very likely not be the last chapter in this important issue.


Dalsgaard S, et al. Cardiovascular Safety of Stimulants in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Nationwide Prospective Cohort Study. J Child Adolsc Psychopharmacology 2014; 24(6):302-310.


Breastfeeding May Boost Child IQ By Increasing Subcortical Grey Matter

Posted: June 2nd, 2016 by David Rettew

While many the medical benefits of breastfeeding such as improved immune function have been clearly established, its effect on child behavior and cognition has somewhat more difficult to determine.  This has been due to a variety of reasons.  Because randomization is not possible for breastfeeding studies, researchers have had to rely on naturalistic study designs.  Since mothers who breastfeed are, on average, more highly educated and tend to have higher income levels than mothers who don’t breastfeed, it can be challenging to tease out the

photo by JompHong and freedigitalphotos.net

photo by JompHong and freedigitalphotos.net

independent effect of breastfeeding from these other variables.  In addition, there remains much that is not known about any possible mechanisms that underlie this link.  To address some of these issues, a new study by Luby and colleagues was recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

The data from the study come from the Preschool Depression Study that has followed a sample of children for 11 years since around age 3.  Admittedly, this study was not designed to look at breastfeeding and the authors had to piece together the necessary components with what they already had.  As would be expected, the study oversampled children with emotional-behavioral problems, and a total of 63% of the subjects had experienced significant depression or anxiety at the last follow-up (and this was one of the variables controlled for in the analyses). Between the ages of 9 and 14, a total of 148 of these subjects underwent a structural MRI scan.  General linear models and process mediation models were used to test the hypothesis that breastfeeding was associated with significantly higher IQ, after controlling for important factors such as caregiver level of education.  They also tested the hypothesis that any association was mediated through the association between breastfeeding and brain grey matter volume.  Breastfeeding was scored as a dichotomous yes or no variable.  IQ was assessed through two different tests when children were between the ages of 8 and 15.

The authors found that, after statistically controlling for some potential confounds, breastfed infants had both significantly higher IQs as well as increased volumes of whole grey matter and subcortical and cortical grey matter.  In terms of raw numbers, the mean IQ for breastfed infants was 109 versus 99 in the nonbreastfed infants.  However, after accounting for caregiver education levels, breastfeeding added a more modest 3% of the variance to the model.   Their mediation analyses demonstrated that the increase in IQ was mediated through an increase in subcortical grey matter.

The authors concluded that their data support the link between breastfeeding and increased IQ and, going further, they suggested that the mechanism of this association might involve an increase in subcortical grey matter. In the Discussion section, the authors go into some hypotheses regarding how all this might work, including direct effects of the breastmilk long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids on neurodevelopment combined with positive effects that stem from the close physical contact and stimulation that occurs during breastfeeding.  The authors urge greater efforts to encourage breastfeeding as a public health priority.


Luby J, et al.  Breastfeeding and Childhood IQ: The Mediating Role of Gray Matter Volume. JAACAP 2016: epub ahead of print.

Prescribing Exercise for Adolescent Depression

Posted: May 23rd, 2016 by David Rettew

Depression in children and adolescents can be a serious and sometimes deadly problem.  With renewed concern about the over-reliance of antidepressant medication, effective nonpharmacological interventions are highly welcome.  Psychotherapy has been shown to be an important treatment for many, but availability and patient follow-up can be challenging.    Exercise has been shown to be a promising treatment for adults; however, the literature for younger patients has been somewhat unsettled.  To get a more definitive sense of these Exercisestudies, a recent meta-analysis on the subject was recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

The authors searched for randomized controlled trials of adolescents between 13 and 17 years of age that used exercise promotion strategies or specific exercise protocols.  As some but certainly not all of the studies were performed with nonclinical samples, the primary outcome for this meta-analysis were scores on quantitative depression-related rating scales. A total of 11 trials encompassing 1,449 participants were identified from as early as 1982.  While the specific exercise regimen varied across studies, the majority involved some kind of supervised group aerobic and/or strength training around three times per week for 6 to 40 weeks.

Overall, exercise was found to have a moderate and statistically significant effect on reducing depressive symptoms.  The overall effect size was about one-half of a standard deviation which is considered moderate.  When the authors divided the sample between clinically depressed and community samples, they found continued support for the benefits of exercise for the clinical group but not from samples taken from the general population (although the effect size was roughly the same for both groups, suggesting that perhaps sample size and/or response variability was the problem in studies done with community samples).

The authors concluded that exercise appears to be a promising strategy to diminish depressive symptoms in adolescents.  While certainly not a miracle cure, it is difficult to see why clinicians would not want  to include exercise in his or her treatment plan for depression, given its many other benefits.

Despite these optimistic reports, a number of important issues need further study.  One of them is determining the optimal exercise regimen to maximize the antidepressant effect.  While many of these studies used 3 times per week of low to moderate intensity programs, it is certainly possible that other approaches might work just as well if not better, particularly those that encouraged daily exercise.  Another important question relates to medication.  While many of us are eager to find effective alternatives to antidepressant medications, this study unfortunately has no direct data on how exercise might be used instead of or in addition to other treatments.

As a practical support of these principles, Vermont will once again be offering the Vermont Parks Prescription program supported by the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and The Vermont Department of Forest Parks and Recreation.  It allows Vermont clinicians to distribute “prescriptions” for exercise which then allow free access to a Vermont State Park.   Physicians and other health care professionals who would like more information or would like to receive some of these vouchers can contact vermontfitness@vermont.gov .


Carter T. The effect of exercise on depressive symptoms in adolescents:  A systematic review and meta-analysis.  JAACAP 2016; Epub ahead of print.


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