Evidence-Based Reviews

Treating negative symptoms of schizophrenia

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Few pharmacologic options, but evidence supports combining psychosocial interventions.



In schizophrenia, negative symptoms such as social withdrawal, avoidance, lack of spontaneity and flow of conversation, reduced initiative, anhedonia, and blunted affect are among the most challenging to treat. These symptoms commonly persist after positive symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia have subsided. In an analysis of 20 pivotal placebo-controlled trials of second-generation antipsychotics (SGAs), almost 45% of patients who completed 6 weeks of treatment still had at least 1 residual negative symptom of at least moderate severity, and approximately 25% had 2 or more.1 Negative symptoms are viewed as being intrinsic to schizophrenia, and also as the result of extrapyramidal symptoms, depression, and psychosis.

Nearly a decade ago, the Schizophrenia Patient Outcomes Research Team (PORT) published its recommendations for psychopharmacologic and psycho­social treatments of schizophrenia. Unfortunately, due to insufficient evidence, there is still no proven treatment for negative symptoms.2-4 This is particularly problematic because negative symptoms are a major determinant of the poor social and vocational abilities of patients with schizophrenia.

This review focuses on treatments for negative symptoms of schizophrenia that have been evaluated since the PORT treatment recommendations were published and highlights those approaches that show promise.


The limitations of antipsychotics

Antipsychotics can both worsen and alleviate negative symptoms by reducing psychotic symptoms. Double-blind, placebo-controlled trials have found that most, if not all, antipsychotics are superior to placebo for treating negative symptoms in patients with acute psychosis.4 However, because these improvements occur in the early stages of treatment, concomitantly with improvement of psychotic symptoms, antipsychotics generally are not viewed as being very effective in the treatment of primary negative symptoms.4 Indeed, an examination of patients with prominent negative symptoms without prominent positive symptoms in the NEWMEDS cohort, which was extracted from 20 pivotal placebo-controlled trials of SGAs, revealed no clinically meaningful treatment effect on negative symptoms.1

There is evidence that antipsychotics can contribute to the development of apathy, flat affect, and other negative symptoms.5 Dopamine (D2)-blocking antipsychotics produce secondary negative symptoms that are not always easy to distinguish from primary negative symptoms.6 In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of single doses of risperidone, haloperidol, or placebo in healthy participants, the antipsychotics increased negative symptoms, particularly avolition/apathy.7 Another study found that chronic treatment with antipsychotics did not necessarily affect motivation in patients with schizophrenia.8

Adverse effects, such as anhedonia, often produce and enhance negative symptoms and therefore can limit the use of pharmacologic treatment options. Other adverse effects associated with specific antipsycho­tics include extrapyramidal symptoms, sedation, increased prolactin secretion, weight gain, and other metabolic abnormalities.

Continue to: Seeking new pharmacologic options


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