Treatment of Depression With Methylphenidate in Patients Difficult to Wean From Mechanical Ventilation in the Intensive Care Unit

Background: Mechanical ventilation is often required to support patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) with life-threatening cardiovascular, respiratory, or neuromuscular disorders. Occasionally, difficulties related to weaning patients from this support occur owing to depression. The traditional and newer-generation antidepressant drugs have a relatively long latency of response that interferes with rehabilitation attempts in the ICU. Psychostimulants such as methylphenidate show a rapid onset of antidepressant activity and a benign side effect profile.

Method: As consulting psychiatrists in the consultation-liaison service of a university hospital, we treated 7 patients with complex ICU courses presenting prolonged mechanical ventilation and psychomotor retardation associated with markedly depressed mood (DSM-IV criteria) by giving them methylphenidate. Methylphenidate was started on the first day at a dose of 2.5 mg p.o. in the morning and was increased by 2.5 mg each day with twice-a-day dosing in the morning and at noon until the patient responded or showed side effects. A maximum dose of 15 mg/day was not exceeded. Outcome evaluation was performed using the Clinical Global Impressions scale.

Results: Five (71%) of 7 patients showed marked or moderate improvement in mood and activity within 3 to 4 days, and discontinuation of ventilator support was achieved within 8 to 14 days. Side effects with these 5 patients were not encountered. Of the remaining 2 patients (29%), 1 developed psychomotor agitation and anxiety within 4 days. Another patient showed only minimal improvement with regard to activity.

Conclusion: Methylphenidate might be a rapidly effective and safe treatment for depression in difficult-to-wean patients hospitalized for life-threatening medical illness in the ICU. Implications for future research for this population of patients warrant formal randomized, prospective, clinical case-control evaluation.

J Clin Psychiatry 2000;61(10):750-755