Conference Coverage

Agitation in psychosis: Still no ‘magic bullet’



– The Food and Drug Administration has not approved a drug to treat agitation in dementia, and the absence of medication candidates is only part of the picture. As a geriatric psychiatrist explained to colleagues, the FDA has not taken the step of recognizing that the condition exists. But there are still options to treat this dangerous disorder – although none is ideal.

Research into efficacy of potential treatments for agitation is limited, variable, and “have high placebo effects,” said Marc E. Agronin, MD, of the MIND Institute and Miami Jewish Health, at the annual Psych Congress. “There is no one single magic bullet, especially since there are so many manifestations of agitation, and there are side effects of medication. This is a tough area to focus on.”

What can clinicians do? Dr. Agronin recommended starting with the steps in the DICE algorithm.

  • Describe: Learn about the aspects of agitation by talking to caregivers and understanding the circumstances when symptoms develop.
  • Investigate: Identify contributing factors, such as those related to illness, medication, and the environment.
  • Create: Come up with a team strategy to address the contributing factors. Address the most urgent risks first, such as danger to self or others, which can require quick action – such as medication adjustment, an ED visit, or psychiatric hospitalization. Delirium is especially dangerous since it can lead to injury and subacute cognitive decline. And keep in mind, Dr. Agorin said, that it may be risky to do nothing or undertreat.
  • Evaluate: Track the results of the strategy while realizing that there’s “not always a quick fix.” Research suggests that therapeutic approaches such as music, aromatherapy, exercise, group activities, hand massage, and thermal baths can be helpful, Dr. Agronin said.

As for medications, he advised starting with lower doses, perhaps 50%, because older people are less tolerant of medication. And beware of oversedation, dizziness, and lowered blood pressure, which can lead to falls. A hip fracture can “spiral down to someone’s demise very quickly,” he said.

Here’s a closer look at Dr. Agronin’s comments regarding specific medications.

  • Antipsychotics: “Every antipsychotic has been used for agitation,” he said, “and they probably have the best efficacy,” compared with other drugs. But the risk of side effects is moderate to high, and atypical antipsychotics have a black-box warning about their use in dementia-related psychosis in elderly patients. Also, discontinuation of antipsychotics can trigger worsening symptoms in some patients. There has been tremendous controversy in recent years over the use of antipsychotics in older patients, but other drugs might be less effective than antipsychotics while still having similar side effect profiles, he said. And clinicians might be too cautious about doses even when they do use these drugs.
  • Benzodiazepines: They can work quickly but come with a risk of sedation. Trazodone is an “excellent” alternative to reduce agitation in the short-term, he said.
  • Antidepressants: These drugs can address underlying depression. Study results have been mixed.
  • Mood stabilizers: Study results are mixed. “Unfortunately, in many situations [clinicians] get scared away from antipsychotics and use mood stabilizers, but there is less data for them in terms of efficacy, and there are a lot of side effects that have to be monitored,” he said.

Dr. Agronin is the author of “How We Age (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2012) and “The End of Old Age (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2018). He has no relevant disclosures.

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