Polypharmacy as maintenance treatment in bipolar illness: A systematic review

Andrea Amerio, Daniel Russo, Norberto Miletto, Andrea Aguglia, Alessandra Costanza, Beatrice Benatti, Anna Odone, Sergio A. Barroilhet, Vlasios Brakoulias, Bernardo Dell’Osso, Gianluca Serafini, Mario Amore, S. Nassir Ghaemi

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Objectives: Polypharmacy is common in maintenance treatment of bipolar illness, but proof of greater efficacy compared to monotherapy is assumed rather than well known. We systematically reviewed the evidence from the literature to provide recommendations for clinical management and future research. Method: A systematic review was conducted on the use of polypharmacy in bipolar prophylaxis. Relevant papers published in English through 31 December 2019 were identified searching the electronic databases MEDLINE, Embase, PsycINFO, and the Cochrane Library. Results: Twelve studies matched inclusion criteria, including 10 randomized controlled trials (RCTs). The best drug combination in prevention is represented by lithium + valproic acid which showed a significant effect on time to mood relapses (HR = 0.57) compared to valproic acid monotherapy, especially for manic episodes (HR = 0.51). The effect was significant in terms of time to new drug treatment (HR = 0.51) and time to hospitalization (HR = 0.57). A significant reduction in the frequency of mood relapses was also reported for lithium + valproic acid vs. lithium monotherapy (RR=0.12); however, the trial had a small sample size. Lamotrigine + valproic acid reported significant efficacy in prevention of depressive episodes compared to lamotrigine alone. Conclusions: The literature to support a generally greater efficacy with polypharmacy in bipolar illness is scant and heterogeneous. Within that limited evidence base, the best drug combination in bipolar prevention is represented by lithium + valproic acid for manic, but not depressive episodes. Clinical practice should focus more on adequate monotherapy before considering polypharmacy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)259-276
JournalActa Psychiatrica Scandinavica
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2021


  • bipolar illness
  • maintenance treatment
  • polypharmacy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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