Evidence-Based Reviews

Treating negative symptoms of schizophrenia

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Nonpharmacologic treatments

Recent studies of nonpharmacologic treatments for negative symptoms, including psychosocial approaches and noninvasive electromagnetic neurostimulation, have also been performed. The major psychosocial approaches that have been studied include social skills training (SST), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for psychosis, cognitive remediation, and family intervention. Some positive findings have been reported. A recent review of psychosocial treatments for negative symptoms in schizophrenia concluded that CBT and SST have the most empirical support, with some evidence even suggesting that gains from CBT are maintained as long as 6 months after treatment.25 Another review found that CBT was significantly more efficacious for reducing positive symptoms and SST in reducing negative symptoms.26

It remains unclear if a combined treatment approach provides improvements above and beyond those associated with each individual treatment modality. Motivation and Enhancement therapy (MOVE) is a potentially promising approach that combines environmental support, CBT, skills training, and other components in an attempt to address all domains of negative symptoms.27 Preliminary results from a randomized controlled trial examining 51 patients with clinically meaningful negative symptoms suggested that MOVE improves negative symptoms. However, the group differences were not significant until after 9 months of treatment and not for all negative symptom scales. A follow-up study has been completed, but the results are not yet available.28

Some small studies have suggested improvement of negative symptoms after noninvasive electromagnetic neurostimulation,29-31 but this has not been replicated in larger studies.32 In the last few years, there were several studies underway that could help clarify if there is a role for noninvasive electromagnetic neurostimulation in the treatment of negative symptoms in schizophrenia; however, results have not been reported at this time.33-35


Social skills training and combined interventions

Taken together, the data suggest that treating negative symptoms in schizophrenia remains a major challenge. Patients with negative symptoms are difficult to engage and motivate for treatment and there are no well-supported treatment options. Given the lack of evidence, it is not possible to synthesize this data into clear treatment recommendations. Because many of the negative symptoms are social in nature, it is perhaps not surprising that some evidence has emerged supporting the role of psycho­social approaches. Studies have pointed to the potential role of SST. It is believed to be beneficial as it targets participants’ social functioning by training verbal and nonverbal communication alongside perception and responses to social cues.36 Some evidence suggests that treatment packages that combine several psychosocial interventions (eg, family psychoeducation and skill training) achieve better outcomes than standalone interventions.37 Thus, psychosocial approaches appear to be potentially effective for the treatment of negative symptoms in patients with schizophrenia. In addition, because some antipsychotics has been shown to be associated with fewer negative symptoms than others, another treatment strategy could be to attempt the use of a different antipsychotic, or to revisit whether continued antipsychotic treatment is needed in the absence of positive symptoms.

Bottom Line

Treating negative symptoms in schizophrenia remains a major challenge. There is a lack of evidence for pharmacologic treatments; psychosocial approaches may be beneficial due to the social nature of many negative symptoms. Further, some evidence suggests that treatment packages that combine several psychosocial interventions may achieve better outcomes than standalone interventions.

Related Resource

Tandon R, Jibson M. Negative symptoms of schizophrenia: How to treat them most effectively. Current Psychiatry. 2002;1(9):36-42.

Drug Brand Names

Cariprazine • Vraylar
Haloperidol • Haldol
Minocycline • Dynacin, Minocin
Pimavanserin • Nuplazid
Raloxifene • Evista
Risperidone • Risperdal

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