Treatment-resistant bipolar disorder

Mol Psychiatry. 2006 Mar;11(3):227-40. doi: 10.1038/


Despite the remarkable increase in medications validated as effective in bipolar disorder, treatment is still plagued by inadequate response in acute manic or depressive episodes or in long-term preventive maintenance treatment. Established first-line treatments include lithium, valproate and second-generation antipsychotics (SGAs) in acute mania, and lithium and valproate as maintenance treatments. Recently validated treatments include extended release carbamazapine for acute mania and lamotrigine, olanzapine and aripiprazole as maintenance treatments. For treatment-resistant mania and as maintenance treatments, a number of newer anticonvulsants, and one older one, phenytoin, have shown some promise as effective. However, not all anticonvulsants are effective and each agent needs to be evaluated individually. Combining multiple agents is the most commonly used clinical strategy for treatment resistant bipolar patients despite a relative lack of data supporting its use, except for acute mania (for which lithium or valproate plus an SGA is optimal treatment). Other approaches that may be effective for treatment-resistant patients include high-dose thyroid augmentation, clozapine, calcium channel blockers and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Adjunctive psychotherapies show convincing efficacy using a variety of different techniques, most of which include substantial attention to education and enhancing coping strategies. Only recently, bipolar depression has become a topic of serious inquiry with the dominant controversy focusing on the place of antidepressants in the treatment of bipolar depression. Other than mood stabilizers alone or the combination of mood stabilizers and antidepressants, most of the approaches for treatment-resistant bipolar depression are relatively similar to those used in unipolar depression, with the possible exception of a more prominent place for SGAs, prescribed either alone or in combination with antidepressants. Future work in the area needs to explore the treatments commonly used by clinicians with inadequate research support, such as combination therapy and the use of antidepressants as both acute and adjunctive maintenance treatments for bipolar disorder.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anticonvulsants / therapeutic use
  • Antipsychotic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Bipolar Disorder / drug therapy*
  • Bipolar Disorder / therapy*
  • Drug Resistance*
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy
  • Humans
  • Lithium Chloride / therapeutic use
  • Psychotherapy
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Social Adjustment


  • Anticonvulsants
  • Antipsychotic Agents
  • Lithium Chloride