Children with Schizophrenia
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Awareness of childhood-onset schizophrenia is rapidly increasing, with a more precise definition now available of the clinical picture and early signs, the outcome and the treatment strategies. Premorbid developmental impairments, including language, motor and social deficits, are more frequent and more pronounced in earlier-than in later-onset forms of schizophrenia. This ‘pandysmaturation’ is reported from the first months of life in more than half of the children who will develop childhood-onset schizophrenia, and it suggests a more severe and early disruption of brain development compared with the adolescent- and adult-onset disorder. The insidious onset in at least 75% of children, the high rates of premorbid problems and the hesitancy on the part of clinicians to make a diagnosis of schizophrenia in a child usually delay the recognition of the syndrome. Elementary auditory hallucinations are the most frequent positive symptom, while visual and tactile hallucinations are rarer. Delusions are less complex than in adolescents and are usually related to childhood themes. Negative symptoms are largely predominant, namely flat or inappropriate affect. A marked deterioration from the previous level of functioning is present in all these children, and an impaired outcome is reported in approximately 50–60% of them.
The main diagnostic challenges are with differentiating childhood-onset schizophrenia from affective disorders (both depression and bipolar disorder) with psychotic symptoms, pervasive developmental disorders and severe personality disorders. Post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder without insight may also be misdiagnosed as schizophrenia. Furthermore, approximately 10% of children from the community report nonpsychotic hallucinations or delusions. Finally, children with atypical psychotic features that do not strictly fit diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia have been described, and new labels have been proposed to categorise these clinical patterns, such as multidimensionally impaired disorder and multiple complex developmental disorder.
In the context of a multimodal approach, including behavioral, social, scholastic and familial interventions, a pharmacological treatment is usually the core treatment. Available experience from the few controlled studies, open studies and case reports on pharmacotherapy in children with schizophrenia aged <12 years is critically analysed in this review, with particular reference to the use of atypical antipsychotics in clinical practice. To date, the major evidence supports the efficacy of risperidone and olanzapine, while clozapine seems an effective option in treatment-refractory cases. Published experience with newer atypical antipsychotics (quetiapine, ziprasidone, aripiprazole) is still lacking in this age range. Safety data (namely extrapyramidal symptoms, weight gain, hyperprolactinaemia, haematological adverse effects, seizures, hepatotoxicity, metabolic effects, neuroleptic malignant syndrome and cardiovascular effects) are reviewed and discussed, along with strategies for management.