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High Exposure to Neuroleptics in Bipolar Patients: A Retrospective Review

J Clin Psychiatry 2000;61(1):68-72

Background: Acute and long-term use of neuroleptics to treat bipolar disorder remains prevalent despite safety concerns. Neuroleptic-treated patients with bipolar disorder have been reported to have rates of tardive dyskinesia, akathisia, and acute dystonia as high as or higher than patients with schizophrenia. Moreover, the pattern of repeated, intermittent use of neuroleptics in bipolar disorder may increase rather than decrease the risk of tardive dyskinesia.

Method: Retrospective life charts of 133 treatment-refractory patients with bipolar disorder (diagnosed according to Research Diagnostic Criteria or a clinical interview with the Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia-Lifetime Version or the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV Axis I Disorders) admitted to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) were reviewed for prior neuroleptic use, medication exposure, and course of illness variables. Patients' medication response and degree of improvement while at NIMH were also assessed.

Results: A total of 72.2% (N = 96) of the bipolar patients examined had exposure to neuroleptics prior to referral to NIMH. Neuroleptic-treated patients had a mean of 5.6 neuroleptic trials with a mean duration of 166.4 days for each trial and a dose range of 25 to 960 mg in chlorpromazine equivalents. Life chart data showed that the neuroleptic-exposed and nonexposed bipolar patients were distinguished by 1 course-of-illness variable: increased suicidality in the neuroleptic-treated group. Patients with and without prior neuroleptic exposure experienced the same high degree of improvement at discharge from NIMH. Only 12.5% (N = 12) of the group previously treated with typical neuroleptics (N = 96) required neuroleptics at discharge.

Conclusion: Our data suggest that the majority of even treatment-refractory bipolar patients can be stabilized without neuroleptics. Given the high risk of tardive dyskinesia and the availability of other novel agents, the routine intermittent use of typical neuroleptics to treat patients with bipolar disorder should be minimized.