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The editor of a prestigious mental health industry publication – the British Journal of Psychiatry – claims it is time to “call for an end” to the psychiatric drug “revolution” that he said began in 1952. He mentions problems with the neuroleptic drugs (also called ‘antipsychotics’) but note he leaves out the lobotomy effect of structural brain changes such as frontal lobe shrinkage, well known to be linked to long-term high-dosage neuroleptics.

The end of the psychopharmacological revolution

Date Published:

Aug 01, 2012 12:00 AM

Author: Peter Tyrer, Editor, BJP

Source: The British Journal of Psychiatry (2012) 201, 168. doi: 10.1192/bjp.201.2.168

[This editorial is listed by MindFreedom International for non-commercial public education purposes, and is not necessarily a recommendation of all or part; author is responsible for content.]


for original article:

From the Editor’s desk


The time has now come to call an end to the psychopharmacological revolution of 1952. 

This term is normally a reference to the discovery of chlorpromazine, described recently as ‘one of the greatest advances in 20th century medicine and history of psychiatry’.[1] Although this was a clear advance at the time, and was serendipitously followed by the introduction of antidepressant and anxiolytic drugs, the claim that these drugs were responsible for the demise of the mental hospital and the growth of community psychiatry, has been disputed[2] as the wind of social change was already blowing the cobwebs away from the corners of the old custodial institutions. 

Yet there is no doubt this was a time of great optimism in psychiatry and the new drugs played a major part. But nobody in the 1960s and 70s could have predicted the words in the editorial in this issue by Morrison et al (pp. 83-84) suggesting that it is time ‘to reappraise the assumption that antipsychotics must always be the first line of treatment for people with psychosis’. 

This is not a wild cry from the distant outback, but a considered opinion by influential researchers who help to formulate NICE [UK’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence] guidelines. And the reasons for the change in view are not just, as some evidence suggests, a consequence of biased representation of drug treatment in the mass media,[3] but an increasing body of evidence that the adverse effects of treatment are, to put it simply, not worth the candle. 

The combination of extrapyramidal symptoms, dangers of tardive dyskinesia and the neuromalignant syndrome,[4] weight gain and the metabolic syndrome, sedation, postural hypotension, and interference in sexual function (but also note the important balancing paper by Reis Marques et al, pp. 131-136, that suggests drugs are not entirely to blame here), would need to be offset by massive symptomatic and social functioning improvement to make the benefit/risk ratio positive. 

Of course, it often is, at least in the short term, but for many the risks outweigh the benefits. All revolutions have to come to an end, and the psychopharmacological one now has to meld into a quieter world where drug therapy, which has had quite a battering in recent years and needs our support,[5] will be joined by other approaches as equal partners, preferably working together in harness rather than in conflict. 

Just as genes and environment interact at critical points in the development of the pathology of autism (Simonoff, pp. 88-89; Bejerot et al, pp. 116-123; Magnusson et al, pp. 109- 115), the introduction of environmental, pharmacological and psychological strategies of treatment at equally critical times in the treatment of psychosis are going to be necessary in the future, and as NICE and other treatment guidelines do not yet have the evidence base to advise on combined therapies much of our information depends at present on clinical skill, judgement, and observational studies of all sorts,[6-8] as well as new approaches to prevention.[9] 

Working with the preferences of the patient, as Morrison et al suggest, is not just a madcap game of pie in the sky; the assumption that such a patient will never choose to take an antipsychotic drug is far from true, and in recent years, with the growth of adherence therapies[10] I have increasingly been impressed by patients taking an active role in not only choosing their antipsychotic medication, but organising dosage schedules that are specific to their needs. 

This collaborative approach prevents the creeping invasion of coercion and leverage from across the Atlantic[11] and is particularly necessary when psychotic symptoms are minor or not causing social disruption (Barnett et al, pp. 124-130). 

Seeing the world through a patient’s eyes is not always easy, especially if what they see is not quite what you see (Bubl et al, pp. 151-158), but it repays the effort. As for the verdict on the place of the psychopharmacological revolution in the long story of psychiatry I can only take refuge in Chou-en-Lai’s Delphic reply when asked his opinion about the impact of the French Revolution, ‘It’s too early to tell’.



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2 Shepherd, M. Neurolepsis and the psychopharmacological revolution: myth and reality. Hist Psychiatry 1994; 5: 89-96.

3 Hillert A, Sandmann J, Ehmig SC, Sobota K, Weisbecker W, Kepplinger HM, et al. Psychopharmacological drugs as represented in the press: results of systematic analysis of newspapers and popular magazines. Pharmacopsychiatry 1996; 29: 67-71.

4 Trollor JN, Chen X, Chitty K, Sachdev PS. Comparison of neuroleptic malignant syndrome induced by first- and second-generation antipsychotics. Br J Psychiatry 2012; 201: 52-6.

5 Cowen PJ. Has psychopharmacology got a future? Br J Psychiatry 2011; 198: 333-5.

6 Adachi N, Akanuma N, Ito M, Kato M, Hara T, Oana Y, et al. Epileptic, organic and genetic vulnerabilities for timing of the development of interictal psychosis. Br J Psychiatry 2010; 196: 212-6.

7 Henquet C, van Os J, Kuepper R, Delespaul P, Smits M, Campo JA, et al. Psychosis reactivity to cannabis use in daily life: an experience sampling study. Br J Psychiatry 2010; 196: 447-53.

8 Craddock N, Owen MJ. Molecular genetics and the relationship between epilepsy and psychosis. Br J Psychiatry 2010; 197: 75-6.

9 Shah J, Mizrahi R, McKenzie K. The four dimensions: a model for the social aetiology of psychosis. Br J Psychiatry 2011; 199: 11-4.

10 Staring ABP, Van der Gaag M, Koopmans GT, Selten JP, Van Beveren JM, Hengeveld MW, et al. Treatment adherence therapy in people with psychotic disorders: randomised controlled trial. Br J Psychiatry 2010; 197: 448-55.

11 Burns T, Yeeles K, Molodynski A, Nightingale H, Vazquez-Montes M, Sheehan K, et al. Pressures to adhere to treatment (‘leverage’) in English mental healthcare. Br J Psychiatry 2011; 199: 145-50.