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50 Years of Data Confirms Benefit of Antipsychotics

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator

This article appeared on the website of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
While the names and types of antipsychotics have changed in the past 50 years, there appears to be a constant: they help.

Examining old and new varieties of antipsychotic drugs, a meta-analysis of studies conducted around the world showed that the risk of relapse for individuals living with schizophrenia taking antipsychotic drugs decreased. Relapse, the worsening of symptoms after a period of improvement, is a common occurrence in individuals with schizophrenia.

After one year, relapse rates were 64 percent for people not taking medication, while they were 27 percent for those who did take medication for at least one year. However, the researchers noted that the effectiveness of medication seemed to wane over time.

Data also revealed that those taking antipsychotics were 16 percent less likely to be readmitted for hospitalization. Five studies indicated that individuals taking medication may behave less aggressively and three studies posited that they have a better quality of life than those who are not taking drugs.

For the study, German researchers looked at 65 clinical trials reported in 116 articles published between 1959 and 2011. The trials included nearly 6,500 individuals living with schizophrenia.

The data “is consistent with what we see in clinical practice—that we are very well able to keep our patients functioning better when they consistently take these medications,” said Dr. Roberto Estrada, attending psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Although antipsychotic medication is often the go-to treatment for individuals living with schizophrenia, the use of antipsychotics does not come without drawbacks. For one, the cost of antipsychotic drugs is sometimes prohibitively expensive. In 2010, roughly $18.5 billion was spent worldwide on antipsychotic drugs, according to a journal news release.

Additionally, the study also found evidence of the negative side effects of taking these medications. Compared to individuals given a placebo, those treated with antipsychotics were more likely to experience blurred vision, skin rashes, major weight gain and problems related to physical movement, such as tremors and restlessness. Long-term use of typical antipsychotic medication may also lead to a condition called tardive dyskinesia (TD).

“The cost and adverse effects associated with antipsychotics remain major impediments to achieving more successful treatment of schizophrenia,” said Estrada. ”Further work needs to be done to develop more effective treatments for schizophrenia that are better-tolerated and thus likely to improve patients’ adherence to taking these medications.”

However, the overall message stated by the researchers is clear.

“Antipsychotic maintenance treatment substantially reduces relapse risk in all patients with schizophrenia for up to two years of follow-up,” said Stefan Leucht from the Technical University of Munich in a journal news release.

The findings are published in the online edition of The Lancet.

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