A family struggling with the challenges of bipolar disorder gains insight and hope from an MGH physician who is broadening the search for medicines to control this common mental health disorder.

Liz and Kent Dauten spent years seeking treatment for their son affected by the psychiatric condition known as bipolar disorder. Then, four years ago, they found the kind of high-quality, innovative care at Massachusetts General Hospital that gave them hope and inspired their philanthropic support.

Impressed by the progress their son made after coming to Mass General, the Dautens, of the Chicago area, are supporting research into bipolar disorder by funding an endowed chair named for Thomas P. Hackett, MD, the late chief of Psychiatry at Mass General. The first incumbent is Andrew A. Nierenberg, MD, director of the Bipolar Clinic and Research Program.

Bipolar Disorder, a Complex Illness

Treating challenging patients is at the heart of the MGH Department of Psychiatry mission: combining superb care with the most progressive treatment and research to help those with the most complex needs.

Until high school, the Dauten children enjoyed normal childhoods. Then, after a trip abroad, their normally outgoing, oldest daughter became so depressed that she couldn’t get out of bed for days. Doctors diagnosed her with bipolar disorder.

Two years later, another bolt out of the blue: their son became manic. Typically quiet and polite in class, he now talked incessantly. Sleep suddenly became elusive. Eventually, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Common and treatable, bipolar disorder usually emerges between adolescence and early adulthood, triggering episodes of mania or hypomania (a milder type of mania) that alternate with episodes of major depression. In the disorder’s more severe forms, symptoms intensify and persist, interfering with the ability to work, love and lead a normal life. Psychosis may occur during either depressive or manic episodes.

Standard treatments worked well for the Dautens’ daughter, who regained a normal life. Their son’s condition was more difficult.

“So you try a million different medications and drugs and approaches—with some success— but not as much success as we would like,” Mr. Dauten says. Relapses persisted. Long episodes of mania and psychosis, treated by drugs with powerful side effects, required months of recovery. Doctors considered their son to be treatment resistant.

Treating such challenging patients is at the heart of the MGH Department of Psychiatry mission: combining superb care with the most progressive treatment and research to help those with the most complex needs.

Thinking Outside the Box

Bipolar Disorder researcher, Andrew Nierenberg, MD
Andrew A. Nierenberg, MD, is searching beyond standard treatments for bipolar disorder.

Over time, Liz and Kent, co-founder and managing director of Keystone Capital, Inc., a private equity investment firm in Chicago, became passionate philanthropists in mental health. It was during this process that they learned about the groundbreaking work of Dr. Nierenberg. “Andy was appealing to us because he really is at the forefront of cutting-edge research in the field,” Mr. Dauten says. “He’s very creative and open minded.”

Dr. Nierenberg says that when standard treatments prove ineffective for someone with bipolar disorder he and his colleagues look elsewhere—especially to drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for other conditions that research suggests may help. For example, he says, preliminary research showed encouraging results from giving patients a combination of an old-line antibiotic and a drug typically used for acetaminophen overdose in addition to their regular regimen.

“When my colleagues and I started to give this kind of cocktail to patients, they improved,” says Dr. Nierenberg, noting, “They are not perfect but they were better than they were before.”

When the Dautens brought their son to Boston to see Dr. Nierenberg, they were pleased at how quickly the two developed a connection. Dr. Nierenberg fine-tuned their son’s medications and his symptoms gradually improved with shorter and less severe episodes. “For the last 10 to 11 months in 2015, he has been healthy and stable,” Mr. Dauten says. Next steps—a job and volunteering—are on the horizon.

Recognizing Creativity and Results

“We are confident that the ideas that Andy is coming up with will eventually strike gold,” Mrs. Dauten says.

Inspired, the Dautens decided to fund Dr. Nierenberg’s research, establishing, with other donors, the endowment.

Their support enables Dr. Nierenberg to search the medical literature beyond psychiatry for evidence of the disorder’s biological basis to help develop and test novel treatments.

For example, Dr. Nierenberg says, research shows that some bipolar individuals have an impairment in their mitochondria—the cell’s power plant. If normalizing the mitochondria also reduces bipolar symptoms, better treatments could result. He also is studying repurposed drugs. And he is looking to improve the use of lithium, a bipolar treatment mainstay.

“We are confident that the ideas that Andy is coming up with will eventually strike gold,” Mrs. Dauten says.

For more information about bipolar disorder or to support research, please contact us.