PANS May Be More Prevalent Than Thought

Jeff Craven

August 04, 2020

Dr Kiki D. Chang

Pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS), a rare acute onset of psychiatric symptoms, might be more common than initially thought, according to Kiki D. Chang, MD.

PANS is characterized by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center as a "sudden onset of obsessive-compulsive symptoms and/or severe eating restrictions, along with at least two other cognitive, behavioral, or neurological symptoms." These symptoms can include anxiety, depression, oppositional behavior, difficulty concentrating, abnormalities in motor and sensory skills, and other somatic symptoms. The condition develops as a result of an infection that causes an autoimmune or inflammatory response in the brain, and patients tend to respond well to treatment from antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medication, and immunomodulatory therapy.

Both PANS and a subtype condition, pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with Streptococcus infections (PANDAS), are underrecognized, Dr. Chang said in a virtual meeting presented by Current Psychiatry and the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists. It is often misdiagnosed as Tourette syndrome or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) because tics are present in about half of cases, he said, but more severe associated symptoms, such as psychosis, can be misdiagnosed as psychotic disorders or mood disorders. Currently, neither PANS nor PANDAS are officially recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics or the DSM-5.

"We're hoping that it is soon because it clearly exists," Dr. Chang said at the meeting, presented by Global Academy for Medical Education. "If you've ever treated a child with PANS or PANDAS and you have seen antibiotics totally reverse OCD and tic-like behavior, if you've seen prednisone actually treat symptoms of mania or even psychosis and actually make those things better rather than worse, it's really eye-opening and it makes a believer out of you."

Anxiety is the most common psychiatric symptom in youth, and anxiety disorders are also common, said Dr. Chang. According to the National Comorbidity Survey: Adolescent Supplement, 2001-2004, 31.9% of adolescents overall reported an anxiety disorder, and 8.3% said their anxiety disorder caused severe impairment. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the level of anxiety for children and adolescents, which can lead to other disorders, such as separation anxiety disorder, panic disorder, specific phobia, social anxiety disorder, acute stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, OCD, or posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychiatrists should be suspicious of any sudden onset of symptoms that overlap with PANS, said Dr. Chang, who is now in private practice in Palo Alto, Calif.

"Anxiety disorders are incredibly common. Remember that you've got to carefully screen for other anxiety disorders, because they're highly comorbid," Dr. Chang said. "You've got to do a full workup. If there are other things going on, you've got to think PANS. If it's acute onset, you've really got to think [PANS], and you should do that workup or refer to someone who does."

The prevalence of PANS and PANDAS is not known, but it may be more common than psychiatrists realize, Dr. Chang said. "I've been doing this for about 10 years now in the PANS and PANDAS field, and it's very clear to me that this is something that is prevalent," he said.

Together with Jennifer Frankovich, MD, Dr. Chang founded a clinic at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, and also helped to develop treatment guidelines for youth with PANS. At the clinic, patients are approximately 7.7 years old when developing the first symptoms, and are 10.7 years old when presenting for treatment. Most patients at the clinic are male (78%), and 40% are acute onset cases. Nearly all patients have symptoms of anxiety (92%), mood disorder (88%), OCD (86%), sensory/motor abnormalities (88%), irritability/aggression (82%), somatic symptoms, deterioration in school (76%), and behavioral regression (59%). More than one-third present with suicidal ideation (38%) and violence to themselves (29%), others (38%), or objects. About one-fourth have symptoms of psychosis (24%).

"These can be really sick kids," Dr. Chang said. "We're talking about kids yelling, screaming, having anxiety attacks, dropping on the floor, doing rituals constantly, not functioning, not able to eat because they're afraid of things, not able to take care of their body or daily living. These were sometimes highly functional people beforehand, sometimes they weren't, but it was still an acute change."

Treatment for PANS

Treatment guidelines released by the PANS/PANDAS Consortium in 2017 recommend a first course of antistreptococcal treatment for new PANS cases. Psychiatrists should look for evidence of strep or other infection and use antibiotics to eradicate any underlying acute or residual infection.

"Very commonly, we'll use things like azithromycin, or Augmentin, or amoxicillin, and you'll see suddenly the OCD go away or at least diminish, the sleep return to normal, the mood come back down," Dr. Chang said. "It's pretty amazing when you see it."

In other cases, ongoing treatment is needed for longer than the normal 5-day or 10-day course of antibiotics. "We're not exactly sure how long: sometimes it's 3 weeks, sometimes it's 4 weeks, but you have to give it more than a week. Sometimes it's the anti-inflammatory properties that are helping." While concerns about haphazardly prescribing antibiotics are valid, "if you can cure this stuff on antibiotics, it's low-hanging fruit," Dr. Chang said.

There is evidence in the literature that prescribing antibiotics for PANS is beneficial. A randomized controlled trial published in 2017 showed that patients with PANS prescribed azithromycin for 4 weeks had greater reductions in severity of OCD, compared with placebo.

"We need more studies, but clearly, antibiotics do have the potential to help with certain kids. And certainly, in my practice, I see sometimes a slam-dunk response," Dr. Chang said. "Unfortunately, sometimes you don't see a slam-dunk response or you can't find an infection. That's when it might be more of an inflammation from some other reason. It could be a leftover infection, or it could be an anti-inflammatory situation."

Immunomodulatory treatment for PANS includes use of NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen sodium; steroids, such as prednisone or intravenous corticosteroids; intravenous immunoglobulin; or plasma exchange. Other therapies to consider are rituximab, mycophenolate mofetil, and cyclophosphamide.

Some psychiatric treatments may help patients with PANS. While there is no empirical evidence that psychotropics are effective in treating PANS, some SSRIs might help if patients are able to handle any adverse events. Psychotherapy and education of the family are also important for patients with PANS and their caregivers.

"Basically, [PANS] has as high a caregiver burden as having someone in the household with Alzheimer's disease or cancer. It's a huge burden, it's very stressful, and the family needs support for this," Dr. Chang said.

Global Academy and this news organization are owned by the same parent company. Dr. Chang reports he is a consultant for Allergan, Impel NeuroPharma, and Sunovion. He is also on the speaker's bureau for Sunovion.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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