(NaturalNews) A new study has confirmed that atypical antipsychotic drugs can cause rapid weight gain in younger patients, as well as increasing levels of triglycerides and LDL ("bad") cholesterol in their blood.
"We are very much afraid that this will lead to diabetes and metabolic syndrome," researcher Christoph Correll said.
Antipsychotic drugs are intended primarily for people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but may also be prescribed to children with autism, aggression or tics. The so-called "second generation" or "atypical" antipsychotics have become more popular than older drugs in part because doctors believed them safer. Emerging research suggests this may not be the case, however, as in a 2008 study published in The Lancet.
In 2003, the FDA warned that use of the drugs could lead to elevated blood sugar and diabetes. Numerous studies have also linked the drugs to weight gain.
"We found that obesity/weight gain, Type 2 diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular conditions were more prevalent in the treated cohort," said Jeanette M. Jerrell, a professor of neuropsychiatry at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, of a study she published in 2008. Jerell found that the risk was even higher among children taking more than one of the drugs.
But studies linking atypical antipsychotics and weight gain have been complicated by the fact that people regularly go on and off the drugs, making it hard to pinpoint a specific drug's contribution. The new study, conducted by researchers from the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y. and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, circumvented this problem by including only participants who were receiving treatment with psychotropics for the first time.
The study included 257 people between the ages of four and 19 who were being treated for severe problems with aripiprazole (marketed as Abilify), olanzapine (marketed as Zyprexa), quetiapine (marketed as Seroquel), or risperidone (marketed as Risperdal). They were compared with 15 people in the same age group who were suffering from similar problems but had declined drug-based treatment.
Although only Abilify and Risperdal are currently approved for use in children, all four drugs are used on juveniles in practice. An FDA panel recently recommended that Seroquel and Zyprexa also be approved for some uses in children.
The researchers found that in 11 weeks of treatment, patients taking Abilify gained an average of 9.7 pounds, patients on Risperdal gained 11.7 pounds, patients on Seroquel gained 13.4 pounds and patients on Zyprexa gained 18.7 pounds.
Depending on the drug, between 10 and 36 percent of participants became overweight or obese over the course of the study. Much of the weight gained was in the belly, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. "In these kids that we studied, there was rapid and dramatic weight gain, more than has been described before," Correll said. Patients taking Seroquel, Risperdal and Zyprexa all showed increases in blood triglyceride levels as well, and Zyprexa also increased LDL cholesterol levels. These are also characteristics of metabolic syndrome, along with central obesity and elevated fasting blood sugar. Metabolic syndrome is a serious risk factor for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Scientists greeted the findings by saying that more data are needed to understand why the drugs cause weight gain and for how long, and why some people lose weight after going off the drugs and others do not.
"Some of these kids are maintained on these medications for many years if not indefinitely, so it's definitely a concern," said Ronald T. Brown of the Temple University Health Sciences Center in Philadelphia. "For children who really don't absolutely need these drugs, they need to be doing more behavioral approaches in psychotherapy."