Who needs antipsychotic medication in the earliest stages of psychosis? A reconsideration of benefits, risks, neurobiology and ethics in the era of early intervention

S. M. Francey, B. Nelson, A. Thompson, A. G. Parker, M. Kerr, C. Macneil, R. Fraser, F. Hughes, K. Crisp, S. Harrigan, S. J. Wood, M. Berk, P. D. McGorry

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75 Citations (Scopus)


In recent years, early intervention services have attempted to identify people with a first episode of psychosis as early as possible, reducing the duration of untreated psychosis and changing the timing of delivery of interventions. The logic of early intervention is based partly on accessing people in a more treatment responsive stage of illness in which psychosocial damage is less extensive, and partly on remediating a putatively active process of neuroprogression that leads to pathophysiological, symptomatic and structural changes, hence improving symptomatic and functional outcomes. However, as in other areas of health care, earlier identification of new patients may mean that different treatment approaches are indicated. The corollary of early detection is that the sequence and complexion of treatment strategies for first episode psychosis has been revaluated. Examples include the minimal effective dosage of antipsychotic medication and the content of psychosocial interventions. With the substantial reductions of DUP now seen in many early psychosis services, based on clinical staging and stepped care principles, it is even possible that the immediate introduction of antipsychotic medication may not be necessary for all first episode psychosis cases, but that potentially safer interventions, which may be more acceptable to many patients, such as comprehensive psychosocial intervention, may constitute effective treatment at least for a subgroup of patients. In this paper, we review this theoretical background and describe a randomised controlled trial currently underway at the Early Psychosis Prevention and Intervention Centre (EPPIC) in Melbourne designed to test outcomes for first episode psychosis patients in response to two different treatments: intensive psychosocial intervention plus antipsychotic medication versus intensive psychosocial intervention plus placebo. This is a theoretically and pragmatically novel study in that it will provide evidence as to whether intensive psychosocial intervention alone is sufficient for a subgroup of first episode psychosis patients in a specialised early intervention service, and provide a test of the heuristic clinical staging model. By experimentally manipulating duration of untreated psychosis, the study will also provide a methodologically strong test of the effect of delaying the introduction of antipsychotic medication, as well as helping to disentangle the effects of antipsychotic medications and the putative neurobiological processes associated with brain changes and symptom profiles in the early phase of psychotic disorders. The study has been carefully crafted to satisfy critical ethical demands in this challenging research domain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalSchizophrenia Research
Issue number1-3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2010


  • Antipsychotics
  • DUP
  • Early psychosis
  • Randomised controlled trial
  • Schizophrenia

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