Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Do all schizophrenia patients need antipsychotic treatment continuously throughout their lifetime? A 20-year longitudinal study

M. Harrowa1 c1, T. H. Jobea1 and R. N. Faulla1

a1 Department of Psychiatry, University of Illinois College of Medicine, Chicago, IL, USA

Abstract

Background The prevailing standard of care in the field involves background assumptions about the importance of prolonged use of antipsychotic medications for all schizophrenia (SZ) patients. However, do all SZ patients need antipsychotics indefinitely? Are there factors that help to identify which SZ patients can enter into prolonged periods of recovery without antipsychotics? This 20-year longitudinal research studied these issues.

Method A total of 139 early young psychotic patients from the Chicago Follow-up Study, including 70 patients with SZ syndromes and 69 with mood disorders, were assessed, prospectively, at the acute phase and then followed up six times over the next 20 years. Patients were assessed with standardized instruments for major symptoms, psychosocial functioning, personality, attitudinal variables, neurocognition and treatment.

Results At each follow-up, 30–40% of SZ patients were no longer on antipsychotics. Starting at the 4.5-year follow-ups and continuing thereafter, SZ patients not on antipsychotics for prolonged periods were significantly less likely to be psychotic and experienced more periods of recovery; they also had more favorable risk and protective factors. SZ patients off antipsychotics for prolonged periods did not relapse more frequently.

Conclusions The data indicate that not all SZ patients need treatment with antipsychotics continuously throughout their lives. SZ patients not on antipsychotics for prolonged periods are a self-selected group with better internal resources associated with greater resiliency. They have better prognostic factors, better pre-morbid developmental achievements, less vulnerability to anxiety, better neurocognitive skills, less vulnerability to psychosis and experience more periods of recovery.

(Received November 01 2011)

(Revised January 17 2012)

(Accepted January 23 2012)

(Online publication February 17 2012)

Correspondence

c1 Address for correspondence: M. Harrow, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Chicago, Department of Psychiatry, 1601 W. Taylor (M/C 912), PI, Rm. 445, Chicago, IL 60612, USA. (Email: Mharrow@psych.uic.edu)

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