A new study suggests that women can continue using antipsychotic medications during the first trimester of pregnancy without meaningfully increasing the risk of birth defects in their offspring.
The study, by Krista F. Huybrechts and colleagues in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, looked at Medicaid users who filled at least one prescription for an antipsychotic medication during their first trimester of pregnancy, when an embryo’s vital organs are formed, and went on to have a live birth. Birth defects, including cardiac malformations, in these children were identified in the first 90 days after delivery and compared to the number of such abnormalities in the children of women on Medicaid who did not receive a prescription for an antipsychotic drug during the first trimester of pregnancy. The number of abnormalities was slightly higher in the children of women who had received atypical antipsychotics than in those who had not, and slightly lower in the children of women who had received a typical antipsychotic than in those who had not.
Huybrechts and colleagues concluded that taking an antipsychotic medication during the first trimester of pregnancy does not meaningfully increase the risk of birth defects in the offspring.
The children of women who took the antipsychotic risperidone did have a small increased risk of birth defects, including cardiac malformations. The researchers called for additional study of risperidone use during pregnancy.
Progressive losses in gray matter have been observed in the cortex of people with schizophrenia, and those at high risk for the illness. In the past, studies have shown that the amount of antipsychotics a patient is exposed to is correlated with the extent of their deficits in gray matter, suggesting that antipsychotic treatment could exacerbate gray matter loss.
A new meta-analysis by Antotonio Vita and colleagues in the journal Biological Psychiatry shows that first-generation antipsychotics were associated with greater losses in gray matter compared with atypical antipsychotics, which seemed to slow the loss of gray matter.
The meta-analysis analyzed data from 18 longitudinal studies comparing a total of 1155 patients with schizophrenia to 911 healthy control participants. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans showed that over time, patients with schizophrenia lost more cortical gray matter volume. The patients’ cumulative intake of any kind of antipsychotic between MRI scans was associated with gray matter losses. But when Vita and colleagues drilled down to find differences between patients taking first-generation antipsychotics and those taking second-generation atypical antipsychotics, they found that patients with higher average daily intake of first-generation antipsychotics had greater losses in gray matter, while patients with higher average daily intake of atypical antipsychotics had less progressive losses in gray matter.
This study is the first to compare the effects of first-generation antipsychotics, which were developed in the 1960s, with those of atypical antipsychotics, which came into frequent use in the late 1980s, on cortical gray matter loss in schizophrenia. While first-generation antipsychotics are associated with the side effect of tardive dyskinesia, involuntary movements of the face and jaw, atypical antipsychotics are most commonly associated with weight gain.
Three studies have randomly assigned patients with schizophrenia to receive either first-generation or atypical antipsychotics. In these studies as well, second-generation antipsychotics were associated with smaller losses in gray matter.
The authors speculate that either second-generation antipsychotics may have neuroprotective effects, or first-generation antipsychotics may have neurotoxic effects. They also suggest that first-generation antipsychotics may not have the capacity to interfere with the natural progression of schizophrenia in terms of gray matter losses.
Future studies may investigate differences between specific antipsychotic medications’ effects on gray matter volume. Vita and colleagues reported that in the analysis, the atypical antipsychotic clozapine was associated with the least loss of gray matter of any medication in the included studies.
Editor’s Note: This study is important because it adds to findings questioning the conclusions of a large National Institute of Mental Health–sponsored study known as CATIE and a meta-analysis by John Geddes published in the journal BMJ in 2000, in which he wrote that “There is no clear evidence that atypical antipsychotics are more effective or better tolerated than conventional (first generation) antipsychotics.” Read more
The atypical antipsychotic lurasidone (Latuda) is one of only a few drugs effective at treating bipolar depression. But 5–10% of patients who take lurasidone experience akathisia, or restless legs.
At a recent meeting, psychiatrist Cynthia Turner-Graham told this editor (Robert Post) of her success in treating a patient with lurasidone-related akathisia that had been resistant to all the standard treatments, including dose reduction, anticholinergic drugs, benzodiazepines, beta-blockers, etc. Vitamin B6 at a dose of 600mg twice a day gave the patient complete relief.
Dr. Turner-Graham was kind enough to direct me to a small double-blind study supporting this clinical observation in patients with schizophrenia who experienced akathisia from treatment with antipsychotics. The study by V. Lerner and colleagues was published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2004.
In new research by Ofer Agid and colleagues, patients in their first schizophrenic episode who reached remission in response to one of two antipsychotic medications (risperidone or olanzapine) and relapsed due to medication non-adherence were re-treated with the same medication regimen that had brought about remission. Reinitiating the same treatment was not as successful in bringing about remission of the patients’ second psychotic episodes.
Patients showed different types of trajectories in their first remission, from immediate to gradual improvement, and these predicted parallel trajectories of their treatment response during the second episode, though the muted response to antipsychotics existed across the board. Dopamine is the main target of antipsychotic treatments, but its role in schizophrenia is not straightforward, and Agid and colleagues stress that response and relapse are multidimensional processes.
Editor’s Note: These data are consistent with the research of J.A. Lieberman and colleagues fifteen years ago, which showed that response to antipsychotic treatment is poorer in successive episodes of psychosis. The findings are also consistent with the idea of episode sensitization in mood disorders, developed by this author (Robert Post). Episode sensitization refers to the case in which greater numbers of prior depressions or manias are associated with faster relapse and a greater degree of treatment resistance.
The data raise major doubts about the common practice of quitting medications to see if remission can be maintained without them. There are dozens of studies in patients with schizophrenia showing that continuous treatment is more effective than intermittent treatment.
Metformin Effective for Treating Antipsychotic-Induced Amenorrhea, Weight Gain, and Insulin Resistance in Women
Treatment with antipsychotics often has side effects such as amenorrhea (loss of the menstrual period) and weight gain that make sticking to a treatment regimen difficult for some patients. A 2012 study by Wu et al. in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that the drug metformin, often used to treat diabetes, can reverse these changes. The 84 female patients recruited for the study were being treated for a first episode schizophrenia, were on one antipsychotic, and had experienced amenorrhea for several months. They received either placebo or 1000mg/day of metformin in addition to their antipsychotic treatment for six months. Seventy-six women completed the trial.
Metformin was able to reverse the side effects in many of the women. Menstruation returned in 28 of the patients taking metformin compared to only two patients taking placebo. Among those on metformin, body mass index (BMI) decreased by a mean of 0.93, compared to a mean increase in those on placebo (0.85). Insulin resistance improved in the women on metformin as well.
Editor’s Note: Metformin can also delay the onset of type II diabetes in those in the borderline diabetic range. The weight loss on metformin was not spectacular and other options include the combination of the antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin) and the opiate antagonist naltrexone (Revia, 50mg/day), monotherapy with topiramate (Topamax), the fixed combination of topiramate and phentermine (Qsymia), or monotherapy with zonisamide (Zonegran).
Many patients with schizophrenia do not reach full remission on antipsychotic drugs alone. The anticonvulsant drug topiramate (Topamax) has shown some promise as an adjunctive treatment for schizophrenia. To clarify the results of studies of topiramate, researcher Christoph Correll and colleagues performed a meta-analysis of nine randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials of the drug. They found that when topiramate was added to antipsychotic treatment, it improved both positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia, and it also led to reduced weight.
Editor’s Note: Topiramate might also be useful for patients with schizophrenia who have the common comorbidities of alcohol and cocaine abuse, since in other studies of patients with these primary disorders, topiramate was helpful.
In two recent clinical trials that were presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in May 2012, the atypical antipsychotic lurasidone (Latuda), which is currently used to treat schizophrenia, was associated with significant improvement in bipolar depression compared to placebo. The studies, known as PREVAIL (or Program to Evaluate the Antidepressant Impact of Lurasidone), assessed lurasidone’s efficacy as an adjunctive treatment and as a monotherapy.
PREVAIL 1 assessed lurasidone’s efficacy and safety when the drug was added to treatment with lithium or valproate in bipolar patients who became depressed. In this 6-week study, scores on the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS) improved significantly more in patients taking lurasidone (20 – 120mg/day; N=183) in addition to their mood stabilizer compared to those who received placebo (N=165) in addition to their mood stabilizer.
In PREVAIL 2, patients received lurasidone at either 20-60mg/day (N=166) or 80-120mg/day (N=169) or placebo (N=170) as a monotherapy for bipolar depression. As measured by MADRS scores, lurasidone was significantly more effective in improving bipolar depression than placebo was by the end of the 6-week study period.
In both studies lurasidone showed significant effects on other measures and endpoints including: improvement in Clinical Global Impressions severity of depression (CGI-BP-S) scores, reductions in anxiety symptoms, and improvement in social or occupational functioning. Lurasidone also produced higher rates of response (50% improvement on the MADRS). The CGI-BP-S improved in patients on lurasidone significantly more than in those on placebo as early as week one.
Editor’s Note: These two trials in bipolar depression suggest new possibilities for treating the depressed phase of bipolar disorder.
In studies of patients with schizophrenia, lurasidone has had an excellent safety and tolerability profile; it is relatively weight neutral and does not increase metabolic indices such cholesterol, triglycerides, or blood sugar.
Lurasidone also has an unusual mechanism of action, blocking serotonin 5HT 7 receptors, that may be related to its antidepressant effects. Antagonism of 5HT 7 receptors has been closely linked to antidepressant effects in studies of animal models of depression by two different investigators, Stephen Stahl and Herb Meltzer. It remains to be seen whether this or some other mechanism of lurasidone accounts for its antidepressant effects.
As we have noted before, since all antipsychotic drugs used in the treatment of schizophrenia (which block dopamine D2 receptors) also show efficacy in mania, it is likely that lurasidone will show the same effects. Studies of the drug in mania have not yet been presented. Lurasidone is not yet FDA-approved for bipolar depression, but the PREVAIL studies may be sufficient for an application for FDA approval of lurasidone for this additional indication.
Currently quetiapine (Seroquel) is the only monotherapy approved for bipolar depression. Studies of two other atypical antipsychotics, ziprasidone (Geodon) and aripiprazole (Abilify), failed to show efficacy in bipolar depression when compared with placebo. Ziprasidone’s effects were similar to those of placebo, while aripiprazole showed evidence of significant improvement in the first weeks of treatment compared to placebo, but these failed to last, perhaps because of overly high doses that led to a high drop-out rate.
Antidepressants used for the treatment of unipolar depression are not FDA-approved for bipolar depression and did not appear to be beneficial compared to placebo in recent meta-analyses by Sidor and MacQueen. These antidepressants include the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), mixed serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), the dopamine active drug bupropion, and the older tricyclic antidepressants. Not only are these antidepressants not effective in bipolar depression, but some (especially the tricyclics and the SNRIs) appear to increase risk of switching into mania.
None of the mood stabilizers are FDA-approved for bipolar depression; these include lithium, valproate, carbamazepine, and lamotrigine. Thus, quetiapine has had the unique position of being FDA-approved to treat both phases of bipolar disorder—mania and depression—and for prevention of both mania and depression when used as an adjunct to lithium or valproate.
If the lurasidone data lead to FDA approval of this drug as a monotherapy, it will be only the second monotherapy (after quetiapine) approved for bipolar depression. (The combination of olanzapine and fluoxetine is also approved for this indication.) Since bipolar depression can take a serious toll on patients’ health, cognition, and life expectancy, the prospect of having another effective drug for this phase of the illness is especially promising.
A study published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology in late 2011 reviewed the various weight and metabolic side effects of drugs like olanzapine, clozapine, risperidone, quetiapine, and aripiprazole.
Across 34 published head-to-head and placebo-controlled studies in youth with psychotic and bipolar disorders, weight gain ranged from 3.8 to 16.2 kg with olanzapine (n=353), 0.9-9.5 kg with clozapine (n=97), 1.9-7.2 kg with risperidone (n=571), 2.3-6.1 kg with quetiapine (n=133), and 0-4.4 kg with aripiprazole (n=451).