Schizophrenia: Drugs, Therapy Can Turn Life around for Some

By Patlak, Margie | FDA Consumer, September-October 1997 | Go to article overview

Schizophrenia: Drugs, Therapy Can Turn Life around for Some


Patlak, Margie, FDA Consumer


"The visions are extremely vivid. Paving stones transform into demonic faces, shattering in front of my petrified eyes. When I am in contact with people, they can become grotesquely deformed, their skin peeling away to reveal decomposing inner muscles and organs. Buildings and rooms spin and weave and their walls close in as I look on, paralyzed by fear. ... The voices either ramble in alien tongues or scream orders to carry out violent acts. They also persecute me by way of unwavering commentary and ridicule to deceive, derange, and force me into a world of crippling paranoia." -- Robert Bayley, a schizophrenia sufferer, in Schizophrenia Bulletin, No. 4, 1996, published by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

More than 300,000 adults in this country are like Bayley, unable to distinguish their imaginations from reality. These people have schizophrenia, a mental illness whose hallmarks are visual and auditory hallucinations. Fortunately the living hell Bayley describes can often be alleviated with a number of antipsychotic drugs, including the relatively new drugs clozapine (Clozaril) and risperidone (Risperdal), which don't seem to have some of the limiting side effects of more traditional drugs, as well as the newcomer known as olanzapine (Zyprexa), which came on the market in the fall of 1996. The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring the safety and effectiveness of the drugs used to treat schizophrenia.

About one out of a hundred people in this country develops schizophrenia during his or her lifetime, according to NIMH. Usually, it first surfaces in the teens or 20s in men and in the 20s or early 30s for women. Schizophrenia rarely develops in children, and many schizophrenics appeared perfectly normal during childhood.

Although research has turned up some intriguing clues, the puzzle of what causes schizophrenia has yet to be solved. Some people may inherit susceptibility to the condition. A person with a parent or sibling who is schizophrenic has about a 10 percent risk of developing the condition, and half of all identical twins of schizophrenics also succumb to the mental illness.

Anatomy studies suggest the condition is not caused by damage to the brain, but rather due to faulty brain development. Studies show that exposure to viral infections during the second trimester and birth complications can boost the risk of developing schizophrenia, because the normal development of the brain may be altered, according to Stephen Marder, M.D., of the University of California in Los Angeles.

Because the drugs that effectively treat schizophrenia affect the functioning of the chemical messengers in the brain known as neurotransmitters, some experts hypothesize that the disorder stems from an inappropriate balance of these messengers in brain cells.

In some patients, schizophrenia is persistent, while others have remissions and exacerbations. Full recovery rarely occurs. Suicide rates among paranoid schizophrenics can be as high as 10 percent, according to study by Thomas McGlashan, M.D., of the Yale Psychiatric Institute, published in the February 1997 American Journal of Psychiatry.

Voices No One Else Can Hear

Schizophrenia is one of the most complex, puzzling and disabling of the major mental illnesses. People who suffer from this condition can have a number of different symptoms, the most prominent being hallucinations, delusions, disordered thinking and behavior, and abnormal expression of emotions. Hearing voices that other people don't is the most common type of hallucination in schizophrenia. Such voices may describe the patient's activities, carry on a conversation, warn of impending dangers, or tell the person what to do.

Another common symptom of schizophrenia is delusions of persecution or grandeur. As cited in an issue of Schizophrenia Bulletin, one schizophrenic, who was a computer programmer, imagined that the end of the world was coming and he determined which of his colleagues would survive in the afterlife by the keys he punched on the computer. …

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