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That's OK, I Didn't Need that Brain Anyway

The following was originally posted to Thought Broadcast.
Long-term treatment with antipsychotic medication apparently causes a decrease in brain volume, according to a new report by Nancy Andreasen’s group at the University of Iowa in this month’s Archives of General Psychiatry. In the study, over 200 schizophrenic patients, treated with antipsychotics, underwent MRI scans of their brains at various intervals over a 5-14 year period. The results showed that the “intensity” of antipsychotic treatment (i.e., doses and lengths of treatment) correlated with the reduction in brain tissue.

Instead of just looking at an overall “snapshot” of the brain, researchers calculated the volumes of several brain regions (from the whole-brain MRI scans) and found, on average, subtle decreases in both gray matter and white matter volumes, as well as enlargement of the ventricles (the “spaces” in the normal brain). The changes were more pronounced with longer time periods of treatment and, in particular, when higher doses of antipsychotics were used for extended periods of time.

As expected, this finding has generated a great deal of interest– if not concern– and more than a touch of “I-told-you-so” from certain camps (see “Antipsychotics Shrink the Brain” by Robert Whitaker). Indeed, at first blush, it is quite shocking to think that the first-line treatment for such a devastating brain disease might cause damage to the very organ we are trying to treat.

But is it really “damage”? All joking aside, I think the title of this post needs to be taken seriously. Does the observed loss in brain tissue loss mean that a person is incapacitatedin any way? That he can no longer think, feel, see, taste, or make plans for the future? Moreover, despite the headlines, the tissue loss was not incredibly dramatic. In other words, we’re not talking about a healthy, robust brain turning into a moth-eaten mass of Swiss cheese. In fact, by my read of the data, the largest individual change in frontal gray matter volume was from about 330 cm3 to 290 cm3 over a 10-year period (yes, that’s >10%, but who knows what else was happening in that patient?). Other changes were much smaller, and many patients actually showed increases in brain volumes.

There were slight correlations with disease severity (more symptomatic disease was associated with a greater decrease in brain volume), and different classes of antipsychotics affected some regions of the brain differently than others. Interestingly, there seemed to be no independent effect of substance abuse on brain volume changes, despite the oft-heard warning that drugs and alcohol “kill brain cells.”

So what does this all mean? Obviously, some will say that this provides evidence that antipsychotics are toxic to brain cells. But there’s no clear evidence that neurons are actually dying; in some studies in monkeys taking antipsychotic medication, the number of neurons remains constant, but they increase in density because support cells (called glia) decrease in number– resulting in the macroscopic appearance of a “smaller brain.”

Moreover, it is quite possible that the disease process itself already leads to a decrease in brain volume (actually, we know this already) and effective treatment helps to further “prune” dysfunctional areas of the brain. In fact, an editorial accompanying the article claims that “strategic reductions in brain volume” might actually be therapeutic, and reminds us that gray matter volume decreases significantly during human adolescence, a process thought to underlie the organization and refinement of brain cells, and elimination of redundancy. (No wonder you have to tell your teenage son six times to clean his room.)

The best way to tackle this question, of course, is to take two groups of schizophrenics, treat one “as usual” with antipsychotics and the other with no medication at all, and perform brain scans at regular intervals. For ethical reasons, we can’t do this (it’s unethical not to treat a psychotic patient with an antipsychotic– although some would argue differently). Another way is to take advantage of the fact that many non-schizophrenic patients are now taking antipsychotics for OTHER diagnoses– bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, insomnia, PTSD (just to name a few)– and we could compare those on antipsychotics to those on other drugs. If we see brain tissue loss across a wide spectrum of diagnoses, it suggests that this effect may be a direct result of antipsychotic treatment, even though the mechanism remains unknown.

Regardless of what’s actually happening in the brains of treated schizophrenics– and whether it’s “good” or “bad,” or whether it resembles the brain loss observed in birds living near Chernobyl– two things must be kept in mind. First, the patient’s well-being is of utmost importance; it would be inappropriate to withhold antipsychotic treatment from a patient who is clearly tormented and disabled from his paranoia, his delusional preoccupations, and his absolute lack of insight, particularly when we know that such medications do, in most cases, result in dramatic improvement. At the same time, we must also consider the other side of the coin, namely that if antipsychotics might cause an unexplained loss in brain tissue—or any other anatomic defect elsewhere, for that matter—we must seriously consider our rationale for these drugs. In particular, brain development in children is an ongoing process, not complete until late adolescence or early adulthood.

Hopefully this finding will stimulate research to determine how antipsychotics affect brain cells over time. Perhaps then we can find ways to preserve brain structure – or, at least, essential brain structure—while still treating the symptoms of mental illness. In other words, avoiding harm, while still doing good.

Further Reading
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Competition between medical practices helps keep health care costs lower, according to a study published in the Oct. 22/29 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Adoption of noneconomic damages caps reduces average malpractice payments by 15 percent, according to research published in the October issue of Health Affairs.
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