Managing the disabling psychotic symptoms associated with schizophrenia involves a combination of schizophrenia medication and supportive psychosocial care. The cause of the disease is not well understood, so the alleviation of symptoms, which include severe changes in a person's thought process, emotions, and ability to interact with others, is a key component of treatment. The most commonly prescribed types of schizophrenia medication are antipsychotics.
Traditionally, the antipsychotics used to treat schizophrenia fall into two categories: typical, or "conventional" antipsychotics and atypical antipsychotics. Other types of schizophrenia medication that may be used include antidepressants. While the side effects of ongoing antipsychotic treatment can be problematic, compliance with drug therapy is essential to controlling symptoms and preventing relapse.
First introduced in the United States in the 1950s, conventional antipsychotics include chlorpromazine and haloperidol. These medications work by blocking the activity of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that has been associated with schizophrenia. Conventional antipsychotics help control the disordered thought processes, including delusions and hallucinations, that are hallmarks of the disease. Side effects include a "flat" emotional affect and a slowing down of muscle activity. The use of conventional antipsychotics over a long period is linked to tardive dyskinesia, a condition of repeated, uncontrolled movements that may persist even when the schizophrenia medication is withdrawn.
Atypical antipsychotics, which became available in the United States in the 1990s, are also known as second-generation antipsychotics. They act by blocking the activity of dopamine and serotonin, another neurotransmitter in the brain, as well as other brain chemicals. Atypical antipsychotics include risperidone, clozapine, olanzapine, quetiapine, aripiprazole, and ziprasidone.
These drugs are often as effective as conventional antipsychotics in controlling the psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia, but the incidence of tardive dyskinesia with long-term use is lower. The side effects of this type of schizophrenia medication vary by agent but typically include drowsiness, dizziness, and blurred vision. Use of atypical antipsychotics can cause changes in a person's metabolism, leading to weight gain, high cholesterol levels, and diabetes. Agranulocytosis, a serious immune disorder, can occur with the use of clozapine. People on this type of schizophrenia medication, which is sometimes effective when other drugs are not, need regular blood tests.
While not a cure, schizophrenia medication improves the quality of life and ability to function of most people with the disorder. As with all mental illness, schizophrenia impacts family members and caregivers as well as patients. To continue to help all those affected by schizophrenia, more investigation into the causes and treatment of the disease is needed.