Antipsychotic drugs are increasingly being prescribed to adolescents and children younger than two years old in the U.S. to treat a variety of illnesses and behavioral changes, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
However, the large number of “off-label” psychotropics such as antipsychotics and antidepressant prescriptions being written by pediatricians and family doctors for babies under the age of two is evidence of a trend, reports the New York Times.
Scientific American calls the modern antipsychotics in use today “atypical,” to distinguish them from the “first generation” of antipsychotics.” The modern versions in use today were touted as being safer and more effective than the forerunners.
But numerous studies have found these medications come with some serious side-effects, such as weight gain, elevated cholesterol, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. In one study cited by Scientific American, 116 youths were monitored while taking risperidone. After taking the medication for eight weeks, the children on average gained eight pounds, while children taking olanzapine gained 13 pounds during the same time period.
Additionally, in a 2013 study by researchers at Vanderbilt University. it was found that children taking antipsychotics were three times more likely to develop type-2 diabetes than children not taking the medications. The studies point out the risk of giving antipsychotics to children, even though the children in the studies were ages five and over, well within the dosage limits of the drugs they were taking.
Quick-fix drugs and the numbers
One case out of California was cited by the New York Times, and it is frightening, and at the same time, heartbreaking. A five-month-old baby was diagnosed with seizures, and at 18 months of age, was given medication to control the ailment, but the medication caused violent behavior.
The baby was put on the antipsychotic Risperdal, a drug typically used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in adults, and rarely given to children under five years of age. The baby began to scream in his sleep, as well as respond to people and objects that weren’t there.The mother became frightened and stopped the medication. She discovered, on doing some research that Risperdal was not approved, and had never even been studied, in children her baby’s age.
According to IMS Health, a data management company, nearly 20,000 prescriptions for risperidone (Risperdal), quetiapine (Seroquel) and other antipsychotic medications were written in 2014 for children 2 and younger, a 50 percent jump from 13,000 just one year before. Prescriptions for the antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac), rose 23 percent in one year to 83.000 for the same age group.
The dangers of prescribing unstudied medications
With those statistics, many experts are wondering exactly what conditions doctors were writing their prescriptions for. With off-label prescribing allowed, doctors are free to write a prescription for any medicine, for any ailment they see fit, even if those drugs are used in unproven and questionable ways, according to the International Business Times.
The New York Times interviewed dozens of child psychiatrists and neurologists. All those interviewed said they had never heard of a child younger than three receiving such medications. The overall presumption was that parents and doctors, desperate but well-meaning, were trying to alleviate “temper tantrums,” or maybe make a non-verbal and overly quiet child more “responsive.”
“People are doing their very best with the tools available to them,” said Dr. Mary Margaret Gleason, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist at Tulane University School of Medicine. “There’s a sense of desperation with families of children who are suffering, and the tool that most providers have is the prescription pad.”
Dr. Gleason says using psychotropic medication on babies is dangerous because the neurological system is still growing and developing, and we don’t know the effects of these drugs on development. And she adds, formal clinical trials in infants and toddlers is not done, largely because of those dangers.
The use of Risperdal in young children is a hotly debated subject. Many psychiatrists and experts are financially backed by drug manufacturers to come out with positive sound bites, citing positive effects on children prescribed these drugs.