Education Medicine Observations Systems

Everything Changes, Nothing Changes.

The Mutter Museum Instagram account recently posted this photo:


“Thorazine” is the trade name for chlorpromazine. It is considered the medication that ushered in the “psychopharmacological revolution”, thus allowing some patients to leave psychiatric institutions. (You can read the interesting history of chlorpromazine here. Spoiler alert: It was designed for use in surgery, not psychiatry.)

Chlorpromazine is often touted as the first medication that could reduce symptoms of schizophrenia. Other FDA-approved “psychiatric” uses of chlorpromazine[1. Other FDA-approved uses of chlorpromazine that are unrelated to psychiatry include acute intermittent porphyria; intractable hiccoughs; nausea and vomiting; and tetanus, “adjunct”.] include:

  • Apprehension, presurgical
  • Bipolar disorder, manic episode
  • Problem behavior, severe

I don’t know the context of the ad (who was the intended audience: physicians? patients? husbands?). One wonders why the ad features a woman and puts greater emphasis on “emotional stress”. A hefty dose of chlorpromazine will result in “prompt” sedation that will give someone—perhaps not the patient—”sustained relief” for several hours.

Did physicians in that era tell patients that the original use of this medication was for schizophrenia? Or did physicians focus primarily on the tranquilizing effects of chlorpromazine for those individuals who had more neurotic, not psychotic, symptoms?

Everything changes, nothing changes. Quetiapine (tradename: Seroquel) was also developed for the treatment of schizophrenia. Now, its uses include:

(1) add-on treatment to an antidepressant for patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) who did not have an adequate response to antidepressant therapy; (2) acute depressive episodes in bipolar disorder; (3) acute manic or mixed episodes in bipolar disorder alone or with lithium or divalproex; (4) long-term treatment of bipolar disorder with lithium or divalproex; and (5) schizophrenia.

The header for the page (what shows up on the browser tab) doesn’t even list the drug’s name. It says only “bipolar disorder medication”.

If you search for “Abilify” (generic name: aripiprazole) on Google, the brief summary that shows up under the first link says:

Official pharmaceutical site for this antipsychotic medication indicated for the treatment of schizophrenia.

However, when you actually go to the official website, the listed uses include:

Use as an add-on treatment for adults with depression when an antidepressant alone is not enough
Treatment of manic or mixed episodes associated with bipolar I disorder in adults and in pediatric patients 10 to 17 years of age
Treatment of schizophrenia in adults and in adolescents 13 to 17 years of age
Treatment of irritability associated with autistic disorder in pediatric patients 6 to 17 years of age

Asenapine (trade name: Saphris) also has approval to treat both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Should we be surprised if paliperidone (trade name: Invega[2. Does it mean anything that, of the five photos on the landing page for paliperidone, only one of them features white males?]) and iloperidone (trade name: Fanapt) soon also receive FDA approval to treat conditions other than schizophrenia?

This is why skepticism is indicated—nay, essential—whenever people exclaim with confidence that “we” understand the biology of psychiatric conditions. We live in an era where cancer drugs can be designed to interact with specific receptors because scientists have located and studied those specific receptors. That specificity does not exist in psychiatry. If it did, one drug class would treat one condition, not four.

While I am probably more reluctant than the “average” psychiatrist to prescribe medications, I believe that, for some people with significant psychiatric conditions, medications can offer great benefit. First, however, do no harm.

It is frustrating when many in the field of psychiatry insist that the serotonin hypothesis is true when, in fact, it is just a hypothesis that is probably false. Also frustrating are the multiple forces that insist that medications are the primary and sole forms of treatment for psychiatric conditions. What about exercise? Therapy? Diet? Social support?

If medications alone could successfully treat these conditions, wouldn’t the pharmaceutical companies have saved us all by now?