Staging in bipolar disorder: from theoretical framework to clinical utility

Michael Berk, Robert Post, Aswin Ratheesh, Emma Gliddon, Ajeet Singh, Eduard Vieta, Andre F Carvalho, Melanie M Ashton, Lesley Berk, Susan M Cotton, Patrick D McGorry, Brisa S. Fernandes, Lakshmi N. Yatham, Seetal Dodd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

68 Citations (Scopus)


Illness staging is widely utilized in several medical disciplines to help predict course or prognosis, and optimize treatment. Staging models in psychiatry in general, and bipolar disorder in particular, depend on the premise that psychopathology moves along a predictable path: an at-risk or latency stage, a prodrome progressing to a first clinical threshold episode, and one or more recurrences with the potential to revert or progress to late or end-stage manifestations. The utility and validity of a staging model for bipolar disorder depend on its linking to clinical outcome, treatment response and neurobiological measures. These include progressive biochemical, neuroimaging and cognitive changes, and potentially stage-specific differences in response to pharmacological and psychosocial treatments. Mechanistically, staging models imply the presence of an active disease process that, if not remediated, can lead to neuroprogression, a more malignant disease course and functional deterioration. Biological elements thought to be operative in bipolar disorder include a genetic diathesis, physical and psychic trauma, epigenetic changes, altered neurogenesis and apoptosis, mitochondrial dysfunction, inflammation, and oxidative stress. Many available agents, such as lithium, have effects on these targets. Staging models also suggest the utility of stage-specific treatment approaches that may not only target symptom reduction, but also impede illness neuroprogression. These treatment approaches range from prevention for at-risk individuals, to early intervention strategies for prodromal and newly diagnosed individuals, complex combination therapy for rapidly recurrent illness, and palliative-type approaches for those at chronic, late stages of illness. There is hope that prompt initiation of potentially disease modifying therapies may preclude or attenuate the cognitive and structural changes seen in the later stages of bipolar disorder. The aims of this paper are to: a) explore the current level of evidence supporting the descriptive staging of the syndromal pattern of bipolar disorder; b) describe preliminary attempts at validation; c) make recommendations for the direction of further studies; and d) provide a distillation of the potential clinical implications of staging in bipolar disorder within a broader transdiagnostic framework.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)236-244
Number of pages9
JournalWorld Psychiatry
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • biological markers
  • Bipolar disorder
  • clinical staging
  • cognitive functioning
  • early intervention
  • kindling
  • lithium
  • neuroprogression
  • neuroprotection
  • transdiagnostic framework
  • treatment outcome

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