Antipsychotic medications may be shrinking the brains of thousands of Australian children, leaving them with permanent mental impairments, leading psychiatrists warn.
The powerful drugs, increasingly prescribed to children with common behavioural problems, could be causing young brains to “not only shrink but not grow normally”, according to a co-author of a commentary published by the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.
The warning was sparked by the emergence of “alarming” animal studies and human research.
Juvenile monkeys and rats given antipsychotics showed brain shrinkage of between 6 and 11 per cent, while volume reductions have also been associated with antipsychotics in adult human study findings that remain contested.
The ANZJP commentary co-authors Tarun Bastiampillai, Peter Parry and Stephen Allison said children were more sensitive to the known side effects of newer antipsychotics, and there was an “urgent need” to investigate whether in developing brains the drugs were “neurotoxic, leading to cerebral atrophy”.
Dr Parry, a senior lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Queensland, said the animal studies were “alarming” and the “vast majority” of Australian children on antipsychotics “could all be having atrophy of their brain tissue happening”.
“This is potentially a very significant public health problem.”
More than 17,000 Australian children are believed to be taking the drugs, formerly called “major tranquilizers”, and experts say they are increasingly prescribed for unapproved or inappropriate uses such as stress, insomnia, difficult behaviors, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and mild to moderate autism.
Dr Parry said antipsychotics were often vital in treating psychotic illnesses and helped some children with severe autism, since in both groups they dampened down pre-existing overstimulation inside the brain. In other children, antipsychotics might dampen normal brain growth, causing brains to “not only shrink but not grow normally”.
Researchers in the US and NSW reported juvenile rats given antipsychotics developed enduring brain changes, including memory impairments and “hyper-locomotor” and “anxiety-like” behaviours.
Professor Bastiampillai, a psychiatric researcher at Flinders University, said if brain atrophy was occurring the concern was “it could lead to impairments in future brain development, cognition and emotional and behavioural effects”.
Chair of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry’s Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Paul Robertson, said antipsychotics “have a role in some kids” but the possibility of brain atrophy was among “reasons why these medications might be problematic in the longer term”.
Antipsychotics have well-established adverse effects, including obesity, metabolic disturbances and diabetes.
By Joel Magarey