Chlorpromazine was the first drug used to treat schizophrenia, having been
introduced a half century ago. Other drugs have been developed since to
alleviate some of that drug's side effects, but chlorpromazine remains in
widespread use—and probably should be, given its low cost and
familiarity, according to a systematic review issued by the Cochrane
Chlorpromazine's use was limited in large part by the movement disorders it
produced as side effects among some patients, namely, parkonsonian syndromes
or tardive dyskinesia.
Second-generation antipsychotics produce fewer movement-related side
effects but may cause weight gain and other metabolic consequences, sometimes
leading to diabetes.
"Reliable evidence about its short-term effects is surprisingly weak
but information.. .does suggest that chlorpromazine facilitates a global
improvement and may decrease the likelihood of behaving in a disturbed manner,
at least within the confines of [the] hospital," wrote Clive Elliott
Adams, M.B., of the Cochrane Schizophrenia Group and a professor of adult
psychiatry and mental health services research at England's University of
Leeds, and colleagues. The Cochrane Collaboration is an independent,
international organization that evaluates medical research.
"There's no strong consensus in the field," said William
Carpenter, M.D., of the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Catonsville,
Md., in an interview. Newer-generation drugs may offer slightly more efficacy,
but they have a broader range of side effects even though they avoid some of
the problems of first-generation drugs.
Still, those earlier drugs should not be ruled out, said the Cochrane
They found 401 relevant studies, of which 99 reports of 50 randomized
controlled trials comparing chlorpromazine with placebo met their inclusion
criteria. The limited quality of some of the reported trials may overstate the
benefits and underestimate the negative effects of using chlorpromazine, they
noted. Lack of random allocation (68 percent) or reporting irrelevant outcomes
(30 percent) largely accounted for exclusion from the review.
Even some included studies provided inadequate information about blinding
methods, treatment withdrawals, or standard deviations. Dosage range also
varied widely, from 25 mg/day to 2000 mg/day, adding another variable to
Higher-than-necessary doses of the older neuroleptics make the side effects
look worse, said Carpenter. "We still have virtually no information on
optimal dosing, even after 50 years."
Patients talking chlorpromazine improved generally and had less severe
illness at the end of the trials, reported the Cochrane team, but "very
few studies present usable data directly relating to end-point mental
"Schizophrenia is a tough disease," agreed Carpenter."
You want to do something to help the patient get better, but there's
Most of the art in prescribing medications for schizophrenia revolves
around ways to get patients to stay on their medications by choosing ones with
a safer side-effect profile, he said.
The Cochrane review suggests not excluding the older drugs from the list of
"Chlorpromazine represents a low-cost choice for clinicians worldwide
and merits its position as a benchmark treatment for psychotic
symptoms," concluded Adams and colleagues.
An abstract of "Chlorpromazine for Schizophrenia: A Cochrane
Systematic Review of 50 years of Randomised Controlled Trials" is posted