What is Sertraline?

Introduction

Sertraline, sold under the brand name Zoloft among others, is an antidepressant of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class.

The efficacy of sertraline for depression is similar to that of other antidepressants, and the differences are mostly confined to side effects. Sertraline is better tolerated than the older tricyclic antidepressants, and it may work better than fluoxetine for some subtypes of depression. Sertraline is effective for panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). However, for OCD, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), particularly in combination with sertraline, is a better treatment. Although approved for post-traumatic stress disorder, sertraline leads to only modest improvement in this condition. Sertraline also alleviates the symptoms of premenstrual dysphoric disorder and can be used in sub-therapeutic doses or intermittently for its treatment.

Sertraline shares the common side effects and contraindications of other SSRIs, with high rates of nausea, diarrhoea, insomnia, and sexual side effects, but it appears not to lead to much weight gain, and its effects on cognitive performance are mild. Similar to other antidepressants, the use of sertraline for depression may be associated with a higher rate of suicidal thoughts and behaviour in people under the age of 25. It should not be used together with MAO inhibitor medication: this combination causes serotonin syndrome. Sertraline taken during pregnancy is associated with a significant increase in congenital heart defects in newborns.

Sertraline was invented and developed by scientists at Pfizer and approved for medical use in the United States in 1991. It is on the World Health Organisation’s List of Essential Medicines. It is available as a generic medication. In 2016, sertraline was the most commonly prescribed psychiatric medication in the US and in 2019, it was the twelfth most commonly prescribed medication in the US, with over 37 million prescriptions.

Brief History

The history of sertraline dates back to the early 1970s, when Pfizer chemist Reinhard Sarges invented a novel series of psychoactive compounds, including lometraline, based on the structures of the neuroleptics thiothixene and pinoxepin. Further work on these compounds led to tametraline, a norepinephrine and weaker dopamine reuptake inhibitor. Development of tametraline was soon stopped because of undesired stimulant effects observed in animals. A few years later, in 1977, pharmacologist Kenneth Koe, after comparing the structural features of a variety of reuptake inhibitors, became interested in the tametraline series. He asked another Pfizer chemist, Willard Welch, to synthesize some previously unexplored tametraline derivatives. Welch generated a number of potent norepinephrine and triple reuptake inhibitors, but to the surprise of the scientists, one representative of the generally inactive cis-analogues was a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Welch then prepared stereoisomers of this compound, which were tested in vivo by animal behavioural scientist Albert Weissman. The most potent and selective (+)-isomer was taken into further development and eventually named sertraline. Weissman and Koe recalled that the group did not set up to produce an antidepressant of the SSRI type – in that sense their inquiry was not “very goal driven”, and the discovery of the sertraline molecule was serendipitous. According to Welch, they worked outside the mainstream at Pfizer, and even “did not have a formal project team”. The group had to overcome initial bureaucratic reluctance to pursue sertraline development, as Pfizer was considering licensing an antidepressant candidate from another company.

Sertraline was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1991 based on the recommendation of the Psychopharmacological Drugs Advisory Committee; it had already become available in the United Kingdom the previous year. The FDA committee achieved a consensus that sertraline was safe and effective for the treatment of major depression. During the discussion, Paul Leber, the director of the FDA Division of Neuropharmacological Drug Products, noted that granting approval was a “tough decision”, since the treatment effect on outpatients with depression had been “modest to minimal”. Other experts emphasized that the drug’s effect on inpatients had not differed from placebo and criticised poor design of the clinical trials by Pfizer. For example, 40% of participants dropped out of the trials, significantly decreasing their validity.

Until 2002, sertraline was only approved for use in adults ages 18 and over; that year, it was approved by the FDA for use in treating children aged 6 or older with severe OCD. In 2003, the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency issued a guidance that, apart from fluoxetine (Prozac), SSRIs are not suitable for the treatment of depression in patients under 18. However, sertraline can still be used in the UK for the treatment of OCD in children and adolescents. In 2005, the FDA added a boxed warning concerning paediatric suicidal behaviour to all antidepressants, including sertraline. In 2007, labelling was again changed to add a warning regarding suicidal behaviour in young adults ages 18 to 24.

Medical Uses

Sertraline has been approved for major depressive disorder (MDD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder (SAD). Sertraline is not approved for use in children except for those with OCD.

Depression

Multiple controlled clinical trials established efficacy of sertraline for the treatment of depression. Sertraline is also an effective antidepressant in the routine clinical practice. Continued treatment with sertraline prevents both a relapse of the current depressive episode and future episodes (recurrence of depression).

In several double-blind studies, sertraline was consistently more effective than placebo for dysthymia, a more chronic variety of depression, and comparable to imipramine in that respect. Sertraline also improves the depression of dysthymic patients to a greater degree than psychotherapy.

Limited paediatric data also demonstrates reduction in depressive symptoms in the paediatric population though remains a second line therapy after fluoxetine.

Comparison with Other Antidepressants

In general, sertraline efficacy is similar to that of other antidepressants. For example, a meta-analysis of 12 new-generation antidepressants showed that sertraline and escitalopram are the best in terms of efficacy and acceptability in the acute-phase treatment of adults with depression. Comparative clinical trials demonstrated that sertraline is similar in efficacy against depression to moclobemide, nefazodone, escitalopram, bupropion, citalopram, fluvoxamine, paroxetine, venlafaxine, and mirtazapine. Sertraline may be more efficacious for the treatment of depression in the acute phase (first 4 weeks) than fluoxetine.

There are differences between sertraline and some other antidepressants in their efficacy in the treatment of different subtypes of depression and in their adverse effects. For severe depression, sertraline is as good as clomipramine but is better tolerated. Sertraline appears to work better in melancholic depression than fluoxetine, paroxetine, and mianserin and is similar to the tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline and clomipramine. In the treatment of depression accompanied by OCD, sertraline performs significantly better than desipramine on the measures of both OCD and depression. Sertraline is equivalent to imipramine for the treatment of depression with co-morbid panic disorder, but it is better tolerated. Compared with amitriptyline, sertraline offered a greater overall improvement in quality of life of depressed patients.

Depression in Elderly

Sertraline used for the treatment of depression in elderly (older than 60) patients is superior to placebo and comparable to another SSRI fluoxetine, and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) amitriptyline, nortriptyline and imipramine. Sertraline has much lower rates of adverse effects than these TCAs, with the exception of nausea, which occurs more frequently with sertraline. In addition, sertraline appears to be more effective than fluoxetine or nortriptyline in the older-than-70 subgroup. Accordingly, a meta-analysis of antidepressants in older adults found that sertraline, paroxetine and duloxetine were better than placebo. On the other hand, in a 2003 trial the effect size was modest, and there was no improvement in quality of life as compared to placebo. With depression in dementia, there is no benefit of sertraline treatment compared to either placebo or mirtazapine.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Sertraline is effective for the treatment of OCD in adults and children. It was better tolerated and, based on intention-to-treat analysis, performed better than the gold standard of OCD treatment clomipramine. Continuing sertraline treatment helps prevent relapses of OCD with long-term data supporting its use for up to 24 months. It is generally accepted that the sertraline dosages necessary for the effective treatment of OCD are higher than the usual dosage for depression. The onset of action is also slower for OCD than for depression. The treatment recommendation is to start treatment with a half of maximal recommended dose for at least two months. After that, the dose can be raised to the maximal recommended in the cases of unsatisfactory response.

CBT alone was superior to sertraline in both adults and children; however, the best results were achieved using a combination of these treatments.

Panic Disorder

Sertraline is superior to placebo for the treatment of panic disorder. The response rate was independent of the dose. In addition to decreasing the frequency of panic attacks by about 80% (vs. 45% for placebo) and decreasing general anxiety, sertraline resulted in improvement of quality of life on most parameters. The patients rated as “improved” on sertraline reported better quality of life than the ones who “improved” on placebo. The authors of the study argued that the improvement achieved with sertraline is different and of a better quality than the improvement achieved with placebo. Sertraline is equally effective for men and women, and for patients with or without agoraphobia. Previous unsuccessful treatment with benzodiazepines does not diminish its efficacy. However, the response rate was lower for the patients with more severe panic. Starting treatment simultaneously with sertraline and clonazepam, with subsequent gradual discontinuation of clonazepam, may accelerate the response.

Double-blind comparative studies found sertraline to have the same effect on panic disorder as paroxetine or imipramine. While imprecise, comparison of the results of trials of sertraline with separate trials of other anti-panic agents (clomipramine, imipramine, clonazepam, alprazolam, and fluvoxamine) indicates approximate equivalence of these medications.

Other Anxiety Disorders

Sertraline has been successfully used for the treatment of social anxiety disorder. All three major domains of the disorder (fear, avoidance, and physiological symptoms) respond to sertraline. Maintenance treatment, after the response is achieved, prevents the return of the symptoms. The improvement is greater among the patients with later, adult onset of the disorder. In a comparison trial, sertraline was superior to exposure therapy, but patients treated with the psychological intervention continued to improve during a year-long follow-up, while those treated with sertraline deteriorated after treatment termination. The combination of sertraline and CBT appears to be more effective in children and young people than either treatment alone.

Sertraline has not been approved for the treatment of generalised anxiety disorder; however, several guidelines recommend it as a first-line medication referring to good quality controlled clinical trials.

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder

Sertraline is effective in alleviating the symptoms of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a severe form of premenstrual syndrome. Significant improvement was observed in 50-60% of cases treated with sertraline vs. 20-30% of cases on placebo. The improvement began during the first week of treatment, and in addition to mood, irritability, and anxiety, improvement was reflected in better family functioning, social activity and general quality of life. Work functioning and physical symptoms, such as swelling, bloating and breast tenderness, were less responsive to sertraline. Taking sertraline only during the luteal phase, that is, the 12-14 days before menses, was shown to work as well as continuous treatment. Continuous treatment with sub-therapeutic doses of sertraline (25 mg vs. usual 50-100 mg) is also effective.

Other Indications

Sertraline is approved for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). National Institute of Clinical Excellence recommends it for patients who prefer drug treatment to a psychological one. Other guidelines also suggest sertraline as a first-line option for pharmacological therapy. When necessary, long-term pharmacotherapy can be beneficial. There are both negative and positive clinical trial results for sertraline, which may be explained by the types of psychological traumas, symptoms, and comorbidities included in the various studies. Positive results were obtained in trials that included predominantly women (75%) with a majority (60%) having physical or sexual assault as the traumatic event. Contrary to the above suggestions, a meta-analysis of sertraline clinical trials for PTSD found it to be not significantly better than placebo. Another meta-analysis relegated sertraline to the second line, proposing trauma focused psychotherapy as a first-line intervention. The authors noted that Pfizer had declined to submit the results of a negative trial for the inclusion into the meta-analysis making the results unreliable.

Sertraline when taken daily can be useful for the treatment of premature ejaculation. A disadvantage of sertraline is that it requires continuous daily treatment to delay ejaculation significantly.

A 2019 systematic review suggested that sertraline may be a good way to control anger, irritability and hostility in depressed patients and patients with other comorbidities.

Contraindications

Sertraline is contraindicated in individuals taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors or the antipsychotic pimozide. Sertraline concentrate contains alcohol and is therefore contraindicated with disulfiram. The prescribing information recommends that treatment of the elderly and patients with liver impairment “must be approached with caution”. Due to the slower elimination of sertraline in these groups, their exposure to sertraline may be as high as three times the average exposure for the same dose.

Side Effects

Nausea, ejaculation failure, insomnia, diarrhoea, dry mouth, somnolence, dizziness, tremor, headache, excessive sweating, fatigue, and decreased libido are the common adverse effects associated with sertraline with the greatest difference from placebo. Those that most often resulted in interruption of the treatment are nausea, diarrhoea and insomnia. The incidence of diarrhoea is higher with sertraline – especially when prescribed at higher doses – in comparison with other SSRIs.

Over more than six months of sertraline therapy for depression, people showed a nonsignificant weight increase of 0.1%. Similarly, a 30-month-long treatment with sertraline for OCD resulted in a mean weight gain of 1.5% (1 kg). Although the difference did not reach statistical significance, the average weight gain was lower for fluoxetine (1%) but higher for citalopram, fluvoxamine and paroxetine (2.5%). Of the sertraline group, 4.5% gained a large amount of weight (defined as more than 7% gain). This result compares favourably with placebo, where, according to the literature, 3-6% of patients gained more than 7% of their initial weight. The large weight gain was observed only among female members of the sertraline group; the significance of this finding is unclear because of the small size of the group.

Over a two-week treatment of healthy volunteers, sertraline slightly improved verbal fluency but did not affect word learning, short-term memory, vigilance, flicker fusion time, choice reaction time, memory span, or psychomotor coordination. In spite of lower subjective rating, that is, feeling that they performed worse, no clinically relevant differences were observed in the objective cognitive performance in a group of people treated for depression with sertraline for 1.5 years as compared to healthy controls. In children and adolescents taking sertraline for six weeks for anxiety disorders, 18 out of 20 measures of memory, attention and alertness stayed unchanged. Divided attention was improved and verbal memory under interference conditions decreased marginally. Because of the large number of measures taken, it is possible that these changes were still due to chance. The unique effect of sertraline on dopaminergic neurotransmission may be related to these effects on cognition and vigilance.

Sertraline has a low level of exposure of an infant through the breast milk and is recommended as the preferred option for the antidepressant therapy of breast-feeding mothers. There is 29-42% increase in congenital heart defects among children whose mothers were prescribed sertraline during pregnancy, with sertraline use in the first trimester associated with 2.7-fold increase in septal heart defects.

Abrupt interruption of sertraline treatment may result in withdrawal or discontinuation syndrome. Dizziness, insomnia, anxiety, agitation, and irritability are its common symptoms. It typically occurs within a few days from drug discontinuation and lasts a few weeks. The withdrawal symptoms for sertraline are less severe and frequent than for paroxetine, and more frequent than for fluoxetine. In most cases symptoms are mild, short-lived, and resolve without treatment. More severe cases are often successfully treated by temporary reintroduction of the drug with a slower tapering off rate.

Sertraline and SSRI antidepressants in general may be associated with bruxism and other movement disorders. Sertraline appears to be associated with microscopic colitis, a rare condition of unknown aetiology.

Sexual

Like other SSRIs, sertraline is associated with sexual side effects, including sexual arousal disorder, erectile dysfunction and difficulty achieving orgasm. While nefazodone and bupropion do not have negative effects on sexual functioning, 67% of men on sertraline experienced ejaculation difficulties versus 18% before the treatment. Sexual arousal disorder, defined as “inadequate lubrication and swelling for women and erectile difficulties for men”, occurred in 12% of people on sertraline as compared with 1% of patients on placebo. The mood improvement resulting from the treatment with sertraline sometimes counteracted these side effects, so that sexual desire and overall satisfaction with sex stayed the same as before the sertraline treatment. However, under the action of placebo the desire and satisfaction slightly improved. Some people continue experiencing sexual side effects after they stop taking SSRIs.

Suicide

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all antidepressants, including sertraline, to carry a boxed warning stating that antidepressants increase the risk of suicide in persons younger than 25 years. This warning is based on statistical analyses conducted by two independent groups of FDA experts that found a 100% increase of suicidal thoughts and behaviour in children and adolescents, and a 50% increase – in the 18-24 age group.

Suicidal ideation and behaviour in clinical trials are rare. For the above analysis, the FDA combined the results of 295 trials of 11 antidepressants for psychiatric indications in order to obtain statistically significant results. Considered separately, sertraline use in adults decreased the odds of suicidal behaviour with a marginal statistical significance by 37% or 50% depending on the statistical technique used. The authors of the FDA analysis note that “given the large number of comparisons made in this review, chance is a very plausible explanation for this difference”. The more complete data submitted later by the sertraline manufacturer Pfizer indicated increased suicidal behaviour. Similarly, the analysis conducted by the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) found a 50% increase of odds of suicide-related events, not reaching statistical significance, in the patients on sertraline as compared to the ones on placebo.

Overdose

Acute overdosage is often manifested by emesis, lethargy, ataxia, tachycardia and seizures. Plasma, serum or blood concentrations of sertraline and norsertraline, its major active metabolite, may be measured to confirm a diagnosis of poisoning in hospitalised patients or to aid in the medicolegal investigation of fatalities. As with most other SSRIs its toxicity in overdose is considered relatively low.

Interactions

As with other SSRIs, sertraline may increase the risk of bleeding with NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, naproxen, mefenamic acid), antiplatelet drugs, anticoagulants, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and garlic supplements due to sertraline’s inhibitory effects on platelet aggregation via blocking serotonin transporters on platelets. Sertraline, in particular, may potentially diminish the efficacy of levothyroxine.

Sertraline is a moderate inhibitor of CYP2D6 and CYP2B6 in vitro. Accordingly, in human trials it caused increased blood levels of CYP2D6 substrates such as metoprolol, dextromethorphan, desipramine, imipramine and nortriptyline, as well as the CYP3A4/CYP2D6 substrate haloperidol. This effect is dose-dependent; for example, co-administration with 50 mg of sertraline resulted in 20% greater exposure to desipramine, while 150 mg of sertraline led to a 70% increase. In a placebo-controlled study, the concomitant administration of sertraline and methadone caused a 40% increase in blood levels of the latter, which is primarily metabolized by CYP2B6.

Sertraline had a slight inhibitory effect on the metabolism of diazepam, tolbutamide and warfarin, which are CYP2C9 or CYP2C19 substrates; the clinical relevance of this effect was unclear. As expected from in vitro data, sertraline did not alter the human metabolism of the CYP3A4 substrates erythromycin, alprazolam, carbamazepine, clonazepam, and terfenadine; neither did it affect metabolism of the CYP1A2 substrate clozapine.

Sertraline had no effect on the actions of digoxin and atenolol, which are not metabolised in the liver. Case reports suggest that taking sertraline with phenytoin or zolpidem may induce sertraline metabolism and decrease its efficacy, and that taking sertraline with lamotrigine may increase the blood level of lamotrigine, possibly by inhibition of glucuronidation.

CYP2C19 inhibitor esomeprazole increased sertraline concentrations in blood plasma by approximately 40%.

Clinical reports indicate that interaction between sertraline and the MAOIs isocarboxazid and tranylcypromine may cause serotonin syndrome. In a placebo-controlled study in which sertraline was co-administered with lithium, 35% of the subjects experienced tremors, while none of those taking placebo did.

Sertraline may interact with grapefruit juice.

Pharmacology

Pharmacodynamics

Sertraline is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). By binding serotonin transporter (SERT) it inhibits neuronal reuptake of serotonin and potentiates serotonergic activity in the central nervous system. Over time, this leads to a downregulation of pre-synaptic 5-HT1A receptors, which is associated with an improvement in passive stress tolerance, and delayed downstream increase in expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which may contribute to a reduction in negative affective biases. It does not significantly affect norepinephrine transporter (NET), serotonin, dopamine, adrenergic, histamine, acetylcholine, GABA or benzodiazepine receptors.

Sertraline also shows relatively high activity as an inhibitor of the dopamine transporter (DAT) and antagonist of the sigma σ1 receptor (but not the σ2 receptor). However, sertraline affinity for its main target (SERT) is much greater than its affinity for σ1 receptor and DAT. Although there could be a role for the σ1 receptor in the pharmacology of sertraline, the significance of this receptor in its actions is unclear. Similarly, the clinical relevance of sertraline’s blockade of the dopamine transporter is uncertain.

Pharmacokinetics

Absorption

Following a single oral dose of sertraline, mean peak blood levels of sertraline occur between 4.5 and 8.4 hours. Bioavailability is likely linear and dose-proportional over a dose range of 150 to 200 mg. Concomitant intake of sertraline with food slightly increases sertraline peak levels and total exposure. There is an approximate 2-fold accumulation of sertraline with continuous administration and steady-state levels are reached within one week.

Distribution

Sertraline is highly plasma protein bound (98.5%) across a concentration range of 20 to 500 ng/mL. Despite the high plasma protein binding, sertraline and its metabolite desmethylsertraline at respective tested concentrations of 300 ng/mL and 200 ng/mL were found not to interfere with the plasma protein binding of warfarin and propranolol, two other highly plasma protein-bound drugs.

Metabolism

Sertraline is subject to extensive first-pass metabolism, as indicated by a small study of radiolabelled sertraline in which less than 5% of plasma radioactivity was unchanged sertraline in two males. The principal metabolic pathway for sertraline is N-demethylation into desmethylsertraline (N-desmethylsertraline) mainly by CYP2B6. Reduction, hydroxylation, and glucuronide conjugation of both sertraline and desmethylsertraline also occur. Desmethylsertraline, while pharmacologically active, is substantially (50-fold) weaker than sertraline as a serotonin reuptake inhibitor and its influence on the clinical effects of sertraline is thought to be negligible. Based on in vitro studies, sertraline is metabolized by multiple cytochrome 450 isoforms; however, it appears that in the human body CYP2C19 plays the most important role, followed by CYP2B6. In addition to the cytochrome P450 system, sertraline can be oxidatively deaminated in vitro by monoamine oxidases; however, this metabolic pathway has never been studied in vivo.

Elimination

The elimination half-life of sertraline is on average 26 hours, with a range of 13 to 45 hours. The half-life of sertraline is longer in women (32 hours) than in men (22 hours), which leads to 1.5-fold higher exposure to sertraline in women compared to men. The elimination half-life of desmethylsertraline is 62 to 104 hours.

In a small study of two males, sertraline was excreted to similar degrees in urine and faeces (40 to 45% each within 9 days). Unchanged sertraline was not detectable in urine, whereas 12 to 14% unchanged sertraline was present in faeces.

Pharmacogenomics

CYP2C19 and CYP2B6 are thought to be the key cytochrome P450 enzymes involved in the metabolism of sertraline. Relative to CYP2C19 normal (extensive) metabolisers, poor metabolisers have 2.7-fold higher levels of sertraline and intermediate metabolisers have 1.4-fold higher levels. In contrast, CYP2B6 poor metabolisers have 1.6-fold higher levels of sertraline and intermediate metabolisers have 1.2-fold higher levels.

Society and Culture

Generic Availability

The US patent for Zoloft expired in 2006, and sertraline is available in generic form and is marketed under many brand names worldwide.

In May 2020, the FDA placed Zoloft on the list of drugs currently facing a shortage.

Other Uses

Lass-Flörl et al., 2003 finds sertraline significantly inhibits phospholipase B in the fungal genus Candida, reducing virulence. It is also a very effective leishmanicide. Specifically, Palit & Ali 2008 find that sertraline kills almost all promastigotes of Leishmania donovani.

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What is Metacognition?

Introduction

Metacognition is an awareness of one’s thought processes and an understanding of the patterns behind them. The term comes from the root word meta, meaning “beyond”, or “on top of”. Metacognition can take many forms, such as reflecting on one’s ways of thinking and knowing when and how to use particular strategies for problem-solving. There are generally two components of metacognition:

  • Knowledge about cognition; and
  • Regulation of cognition.

Metamemory, defined as knowing about memory and mnemonic strategies, is an especially important form of metacognition. Academic research on metacognitive processing across cultures is in the early stages, but there are indications that further work may provide better outcomes in cross-cultural learning between teachers and students.

Writings on metacognition date back at least as far as two works by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC): On the Soul and the Parva Naturalia.

Definitions

This higher-level cognition was given the label metacognition by American developmental psychologist John H. Flavell (1976).

The term metacognition literally means ‘above cognition’, and is used to indicate cognition about cognition, or more informally, thinking about thinking. Flavell defined metacognition as knowledge about cognition and control of cognition. For example, a person is engaging in metacognition if they notice that they are having more trouble learning A than B, or if it strikes them that they should double-check C before accepting it as fact. J.H. Flavell (1976, p. 232). Andreas Demetriou’s theory (one of the neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development) used the term hyper-cognition to refer to self-monitoring, self-representation, and self-regulation processes, which are regarded as integral components of the human mind. Moreover, with his colleagues, he showed that these processes participate in general intelligence, together with processing efficiency and reasoning, which have traditionally been considered to compose fluid intelligence.

Metacognition also involves thinking about one’s own thinking process such as study skills, memory capabilities, and the ability to monitor learning. This concept needs to be explicitly taught along with content instruction.

Metacognitive knowledge is about one’s own cognitive processes and the understanding of how to regulate those processes to maximize learning.

Some types of metacognitive knowledge would include:

TypeOutline
Content Knowledge (Declarative Knowledge)Content knowledge (declarative knowledge) which is understanding one’s own capabilities, such as a student evaluating their own knowledge of a subject in a class. It is notable that not all metacognition is accurate. Studies have shown that students often mistake lack of effort with understanding in evaluating themselves and their overall knowledge of a concept.[10] Also, greater confidence in having performed well is associated with less accurate metacognitive judgment of the performance.
Task Knowledge (Procedural Knowledge)Task knowledge (procedural knowledge), which is how one perceives the difficulty of a task which is the content, length, and the type of assignment. The study mentioned in Content knowledge also deals with a person’s ability to evaluate the difficulty of a task related to their overall performance on the task. Again, the accuracy of this knowledge was skewed as students who thought their way was better/easier also seemed to perform worse on evaluations, while students who were rigorously and continually evaluated reported to not be as confident but still did better on initial evaluations.
Strategic Knowledge (Conditional Knowledge)Strategic knowledge (conditional knowledge) which is one’s own capability for using strategies to learn information. Young children are not particularly good at this; it is not until students are in upper elementary school that they begin to develop an understanding of effective strategies.

Metacognition is a general term encompassing the study of memory-monitoring and self-regulation, meta-reasoning, consciousness/awareness and autonoetic consciousness/self-awareness. In practice these capacities are used to regulate one’s own cognition, to maximise one’s potential to think, learn and to the evaluation of proper ethical/moral rules. It can also lead to a reduction in response time for a given situation as a result of heightened awareness, and potentially reduce the time to complete problems or tasks.

In the domain of experimental psychology, an influential distinction in metacognition (proposed by T.O. Nelson & L. Narens) is between Monitoring – making judgements about the strength of one’s memories – and Control – using those judgments to guide behaviour (in particular, to guide study choices). Dunlosky, Serra, and Baker (2007) covered this distinction in a review of metamemory research that focused on how findings from this domain can be applied to other areas of applied research.

In the domain of cognitive neuroscience, metacognitive monitoring and control has been viewed as a function of the prefrontal cortex, which receives (monitors) sensory signals from other cortical regions and implements control using feedback loops (see chapters by Schwartz & Bacon and Shimamura, in Dunlosky & Bjork, 2008).

Metacognition is studied in the domain of artificial intelligence and modelling. Therefore, it is the domain of interest of emergent systemics.

Components

Metacognition is classified into three components:

  1. Metacognitive knowledge (also called metacognitive awareness) is what individuals know about themselves and others as cognitive processors.
  2. Metacognitive regulation is the regulation of cognition and learning experiences through a set of activities that help people control their learning.
  3. Metacognitive experiences are those experiences that have something to do with the current, on-going cognitive endeavour.

Metacognition refers to a level of thinking that involves active control over the process of thinking that is used in learning situations. Planning the way to approach a learning task, monitoring comprehension, and evaluating the progress towards the completion of a task: these are skills that are metacognitive in their nature.

Metacognition includes at least three different types of metacognitive awareness when considering metacognitive knowledge:

  1. Declarative knowledge: refers to knowledge about oneself as a learner and about what factors can influence one’s performance. Declarative knowledge can also be referred to as “world knowledge”.
  2. Procedural knowledge: refers to knowledge about doing things. This type of knowledge is displayed as heuristics and strategies. A high degree of procedural knowledge can allow individuals to perform tasks more automatically. This is achieved through a large variety of strategies that can be accessed more efficiently.
  3. Conditional knowledge: refers to knowing when and why to use declarative and procedural knowledge. It allows students to allocate their resources when using strategies. This in turn allows the strategies to become more effective.

Similar to metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive regulation or “regulation of cognition” contains three skills that are essential.

  1. Planning: refers to the appropriate selection of strategies and the correct allocation of resources that affect task performance.
  2. Monitoring: refers to one’s awareness of comprehension and task performance
  3. Evaluating: refers to appraising the final product of a task and the efficiency at which the task was performed. This can include re-evaluating strategies that were used.

Similarly, maintaining motivation to see a task to completion is also a metacognitive skill. The ability to become aware of distracting stimuli – both internal and external – and sustain effort over time also involves metacognitive or executive functions. The theory that metacognition has a critical role to play in successful learning means it is important that it be demonstrated by both students and teachers.

Students who underwent metacognitive training including pretesting, self evaluation, and creating study plans performed better on exams. They are self-regulated learners who utilise the “right tool for the job” and modify learning strategies and skills based on their awareness of effectiveness. Individuals with a high level of metacognitive knowledge and skill identify blocks to learning as early as possible and change “tools” or strategies to ensure goal attainment. Swanson (1990) found that metacognitive knowledge can compensate for IQ and lack of prior knowledge when comparing fifth and sixth grade students’ problem solving. Students with a high-metacognition were reported to have used fewer strategies, but solved problems more effectively than low-metacognition students, regardless of IQ or prior knowledge. In one study examining students who send text messages during college lectures, it was suggested that students with higher metacognitive abilities were less likely than other students to have their learning affected by using a mobile phone in class.

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. Bertrand Russell.

Metacognologists are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, the nature of the task at hand, and available “tools” or skills. A broader repertoire of “tools” also assists in goal attainment. When “tools” are general, generic, and context independent, they are more likely to be useful in different types of learning situations.

Another distinction in metacognition is executive management and strategic knowledge. Executive management processes involve planning, monitoring, evaluating and revising one’s own thinking processes and products. Strategic knowledge involves knowing what (factual or declarative knowledge), knowing when and why (conditional or contextual knowledge) and knowing how (procedural or methodological knowledge). Both executive management and strategic knowledge metacognition are needed to self-regulate one’s own thinking and learning.

Finally, there is no distinction between domain-general and domain-specific metacognitive skills. This means that metacognitive skills are domain-general in nature and there are no specific skills for certain subject areas. The metacognitive skills that are used to review an essay are the same as those that are used to verify an answer to a math question.

Social Metacognition

Although metacognition has thus far been discussed in relation to the self, recent research in the field has suggested that this view is overly restrictive. Instead, it is argued that metacognition research should also include beliefs about others’ mental processes, the influence of culture on those beliefs, and on beliefs about ourselves. This “expansionist view” proposes that it is impossible to fully understand metacognition without considering the situational norms and cultural expectations that influence those same conceptions. This combination of social psychology and metacognition is referred to as social metacognition.

Social metacognition can include ideas and perceptions that relate to social cognition. Additionally, social metacognition can include judging the cognition of others, such as judging the perceptions and emotional states of others. This is in part because the process of judging others is similar to judging the self. However, individuals have less information about the people they are judging; therefore, judging others tends to be more inaccurate. Having similar cognitions can buffer against this inaccuracy and can be helpful for teams or organisations, as well as interpersonal relationships.

Social Metacognition and the Self Concept

An example of the interaction between social metacognition and self-concept can be found in examining implicit theories about the self. Implicit theories can cover a wide range of constructs about how the self operates, but two are especially relevant here; entity theory and incrementalist theory. Entity theory proposes that an individual’s self-attributes and abilities are fixed and stable, while incrementalist theory proposes that these same constructs can be changed through effort and experience. Entity theorists are susceptible to learned helplessness because they may feel that circumstances are outside their control (i.e. there is nothing that could have been done to make things better), thus they may give up easily. Incremental theorists react differently when faced with failure: they desire to master challenges, and therefore adopt a mastery-oriented pattern. They immediately began to consider various ways that they could approach the task differently, and they increase their efforts. Cultural beliefs can act on this as well. For example, a person who has accepted a cultural belief that memory loss is an unavoidable consequence of old age may avoid cognitively demanding tasks as they age, thus accelerating cognitive decline. Similarly, a woman who is aware of the stereotype that purports that women are not good at mathematics may perform worse on tests of mathematical ability or avoid mathematics altogether. These examples demonstrate that the metacognitive beliefs people hold about the self – which may be socially or culturally transmitted – can have important effects on persistence, performance, and motivation.

Attitudes as a Function of Social Metacognition

The way that individuals think about attitude greatly affects the way that they behave. Metacognitions about attitudes influence how individuals act, and especially how they interact with others.

Some metacognitive characteristics of attitudes include importance, certainty, and perceived knowledge, and they influence behaviour in different ways. Attitude importance is the strongest predictor of behaviour and can predict information seeking behaviours in individuals. Attitude importance is also more likely to influence behaviour than certainty of the attitude. When considering a social behaviour like voting a person may hold high importance but low certainty. This means that they will likely vote, even if they are unsure whom to vote for. Meanwhile, a person who is very certain of who they want to vote for, may not actually vote if it is of low importance to them. This also applies to interpersonal relationships. A person might hold a lot of favourable knowledge about their family, but they may not maintain close relations with their family if it is of low importance.

Metacognitive characteristics of attitudes may be key to understanding how attitudes change. Research shows that the frequency of positive or negative thoughts is the biggest factor in attitude change. A person may believe that climate change is occurring but have negative thoughts toward it such as “If I accept the responsibilities of climate change, I must change my lifestyle”. These individuals would not likely change their behaviour compared to someone that thinks positively about the same issue such as “By using less electricity, I will be helping the planet”.

Another way to increase the likelihood of behaviour change is by influencing the source of the attitude. An individual’s personal thoughts and ideas have a much greater impact on the attitude compared to ideas of others. Therefore, when people view lifestyle changes as coming from themselves, the effects are more powerful than if the changes were coming from a friend or family member. These thoughts can be re-framed in a way that emphasizes personal importance, such as “I want to stop smoking because it is important to me” rather than “quitting smoking is important to my family”. More research needs to be conducted on culture differences and importance of group ideology, which may alter these results.

Social Metacognition and Stereotypes

People have secondary cognitions about the appropriateness, justifiability, and social judgability of their own stereotypic beliefs. People know that it is typically unacceptable to make stereotypical judgments and make conscious efforts not to do so. Subtle social cues can influence these conscious efforts. For example, when given a false sense of confidence about their ability to judge others, people will return to relying on social stereotypes. Cultural backgrounds influence social metacognitive assumptions, including stereotypes. For example, cultures without the stereotype that memory declines with old age display no age differences in memory performance.

When it comes to making judgements about other people, implicit theories about the stability versus malleability of human characteristics predict differences in social stereotyping as well. Holding an entity theory of traits increases the tendency for people to see similarity among group members and utilise stereotyped judgments. For example, compared to those holding incremental beliefs, people who hold entity beliefs of traits use more stereotypical trait judgements of ethnic and occupational groups as well as form more extreme trait judgments of new groups. When an individual’s assumptions about a group combine with their implicit theories, more stereotypical judgements may be formed. Stereotypes that one believes others hold about them are called metastereotypes.

Animal Metacognition

In Nonhuman Primates

Chimpanzees

Beran, Smith, and Perdue (2013) found that chimpanzees showed metacognitive monitoring in the information-seeking task. In their studies, three language-trained chimpanzees were asked to use the keyboard to name the food item in order to get the food. The food in the container was either visible to them or they had to move toward the container to see its contents. Studies shown that chimpanzees were more often to check what was in the container first if the food in the container was hidden. But when the food was visible to them, the chimpanzees were more likely to directly approach the keyboard and reported the identity of the food without looking again in the container. Their results suggested that chimpanzees know what they have seen and show effective information-seeking behaviour when information is incomplete.

Rhesus Macaques (Macaca Mulatta)

Morgan et al. (2014) investigated whether rhesus macaques can make both retrospective and prospective metacognitive judgements on the same memory task. Risk choices were introduced to assess the monkey’s confidence about their memories. Two male rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) were trained in a computerised token economy task first in which they can accumulate tokens to exchange food rewards. Monkeys were presented with multiple images of common objects simultaneously and then a moving border appearing on the screen indicating the target. Immediately following the presentation, the target images and some distractors were shown in the test. During the training phase, monkeys received immediate feedback after they made responses. They can earn two tokens if they make correct choices but lost two tokens if they were wrong.

In Experiment 1, the confidence rating was introduced after they completed their responses in order to test the retrospective metamemory judgements. After each response, a high-risk and a low-risk choice were provided to the monkeys. They could earn one token regardless of their accuracy if they choose the low-risk option. When they chose high-risk, they were rewarded with three tokens if their memory response was correct on that trial but lost three tokens if they made incorrect responses. Morgan and colleagues (2014) found a significant positive correlation between memory accuracy and risk choice in two rhesus monkeys. That is, they were more likely to select the high-risk option if they answered correctly in the working memory task but select the low-risk option if they were failed in the memory task.

Then Morgan et al. (2014) examine monkeys’ prospective metacognitive monitoring skills in Experiment 2. This study employed the same design except that two monkeys were asked to make low-risk or high-risk confidence judgement before they make actual responses to measure their judgements about future events. Similarly, the monkeys were more often to choose high-risk confidence judgment before answering correctly in working memory task and tended to choose the low-risk option before providing an incorrect response. These two studies indicated that rhesus monkeys can accurately monitor their performance and provided evidence of metacognitive abilities in monkeys.

In Rats

In addition to nonhuman primates, other animals are also shown metacognition. Foote and Crystal (2007) provided the first evidence that rats have the knowledge of what they know in a perceptual discrimination task. Rats were required to classify brief noises as short or long. Some noises with intermediate durations were difficult to discriminate as short or long. Rats were provided with an option to decline to take the test on some trials but were forced to make responses on other trials. If they chose to take the test and respond correctly, they would receive a high reward but no reward if their classification of noises was incorrect. But if the rats decline to take the test, they would be guaranteed a smaller reward. The results showed that rats were more likely to decline to take the test when the difficulty of noise discrimination increased, suggesting rats knew they do not have the correct answers and declined to take the test to receive the reward. Another finding is that the performance was better when they had chosen to take the test compared with if the rats were forced to make responses, proving that some uncertain trials were declined to improve the accuracy.

These responses pattern might be attributed to actively monitor their own mental states. Alternatively, external cues such as environmental cue associations could be used to explain their behaviours in the discrimination task. Rats might have learned the association between intermediate stimuli and the decline option over time. Longer response latencies or some features inherent to stimuli can serve as discriminative cues to decline tests. Therefore, Templer, Lee, and Preston (2017) utilised an olfactory-based delayed match to sample (DMTS) memory task to assess whether rats were capable of metacognitive responding adaptively. Rats were exposed to sample odour first and chose to either decline or take the four-choice memory test after a delay. The correct choices of odour were associated with high reward and incorrect choices have no reward. The decline options were accompanied by a small reward.

In experiment 2, some “no-sample” trials were added in the memory test in which no odour was provided before the test. They hypothesized that rats would decline more often when there was no sample odour presented compared with odour presented if rats could internally assess the memory strength. Alternatively, if the decline option was motivated by external environmental cues, the rats would be less likely to decline the test because no available external cues were presented. The results showed that rats were more likely to decline the test in no-sample trials relative to normal sample trials, supporting the notion that rats can track their internal memory strength.

To rule out other potential possibilities, they also manipulated memory strength by providing the sampled odour twice and varying the retention interval between the learning and the test. Templer and colleagues (2017) found rats were less likely to decline the test if they had been exposed to the sample twice, suggesting that their memory strength for these samples was increased. Longer delayed sample test was more often declined than short delayed test because their memory was better after the short delay. Overall, their series of studies demonstrated that rats could distinguish between remembering and forgetting and rule out the possibilities that decline use was modulated by the external cues such as environmental cue associations.

In Pigeons

Research on metacognition of pigeons has shown limited success. Inman and Shettleworth (1999) employed the delayed match to sample (DMTS) procedure to test pigeons’ metacognition. Pigeons were presented with one of three sample shapes (a triangle, a square, or a star) and then they were required to peck the matched sample when three stimuli simultaneously appeared on the screen at the end of the retention interval. A safe key was also presented in some trials next to three sample stimuli which allow them to decline that trial. Pigeons received a high reward for pecking correct stimuli, a middle-level reward for pecking the safe key, and nothing if they pecked the wrong stimuli. Inman and Shettleworth’s (1999) first experiment found that pigeons’ accuracies were lower and they were more likely to choose the safe key as the retention interval between presentation of stimuli and test increased. However, in Experiment 2, when pigeons were presented with the option to escape or take the test before the test phase, there was no relationship between choosing the safe key and longer retention interval. Adams and Santi (2011) also employed the DMTS procedure in a perceptual discrimination task during which pigeons were trained to discriminate between durations of illumination. Pigeons did not choose the escape option more often as the retention interval increased during initial testing. After extended training, they learned to escape the difficult trials. However, these patterns might be attributed to the possibility that pigeons learned the association between escape responses and longer retention delay.

In addition to DMTS paradigm, Castro and Wasserman (2013) proved that pigeons can exhibit adaptive and efficient information-seeking behaviour in the same-different discrimination task. Two arrays of items were presented simultaneously in which the two sets of items were either identical or different from one another. Pigeons were required to distinguish between the two arrays of items in which the level of difficulty was varied. Pigeons were provided with an “Information” button and a “Go” button on some trials that they could increase the number of items in the arrays to make the discrimination easier or they can prompt to make responses by pecking the Go button. Castro and Wasserman found that the more difficult the task, the more often pigeons chose the information button to solve the discrimination task. This behavioural pattern indicated that pigeons could evaluate the difficulty of the task internally and actively search for information when is necessary.

In Dogs

Dogs have shown a certain level of metacognition that they are sensitive to information they have acquired or not. Belger & Bräuer (2018) examined whether dogs could seek additional information when facing uncertain situations. The experimenter put the reward behind one of the two fences in which dogs can see or cannot see where the reward was hidden. After that, dogs were encouraged to find the reward by walking around one fence. The dogs checked more frequently before selecting the fence when they did not see the baiting process compared with when they saw where the reward was hidden. However, contrary to apes, dogs did not show more checking behaviours when the delay between baiting the reward and selecting the fence was longer. Their findings suggested that dogs have some aspect of information-searching behaviours but less flexibly compared to apes.

In Dolphins

Smith et al. (1995) evaluated whether dolphins have the ability of metacognitive monitoring in an auditory threshold paradigm. A bottlenosed dolphin was trained to discriminate between high-frequency tones and low-frequency tones. An escape option was available on some trials associated with a small reward. Their studies showed that dolphins could appropriately use the uncertain response when the trials were difficult to discriminate.

Debate

There is consensus that nonhuman primates, especially great apes and rhesus monkeys, exhibit metacognitive control and monitoring behaviours. But less convergent evidence was found in other animals such as rats and pigeons. Some researchers criticised these methods and posited that these performances might be accounted for by low-level conditioning mechanisms. Animals learned the association between reward and external stimuli through simple reinforcement models. However, many studies have demonstrated that the reinforcement model alone cannot explain animals’ behavioural patterns. Animals have shown adaptive metacognitive behaviour even with the absence of concrete reward.

Strategies

Metacognitive-like processes are especially ubiquitous when it comes to the discussion of self-regulated learning. Self-regulation requires metacognition by looking at one’s awareness of their learning and planning further learning methodology. Attentive metacognition is a salient feature of good self-regulated learners, but does not guarantee automatic application. Reinforcing collective discussion of metacognition is a salient feature of self-critical and self-regulating social groups. The activities of strategy selection and application include those concerned with an ongoing attempt to plan, check, monitor, select, revise, evaluate, etc.

Metacognition is ‘stable’ in that learners’ initial decisions derive from the pertinent facts about their cognition through years of learning experience. Simultaneously, it is also ‘situated’ in the sense that it depends on learners’ familiarity with the task, motivation, emotion, and so forth. Individuals need to regulate their thoughts about the strategy they are using and adjust it based on the situation to which the strategy is being applied. At a professional level, this has led to emphasis on the development of reflective practice, particularly in the education and health-care professions.

Recently, the notion has been applied to the study of second language learners in the field of TESOL and applied linguistics in general (e.g. Wenden, 1987; Zhang, 2001, 2010). This new development has been much related to Flavell (1979), where the notion of metacognition is elaborated within a tripartite theoretical framework. Learner metacognition is defined and investigated by examining their person knowledge, task knowledge and strategy knowledge.

Wenden (1991) has proposed and used this framework and Zhang (2001) has adopted this approach and investigated second language learners’ metacognition or metacognitive knowledge. In addition to exploring the relationships between learner metacognition and performance, researchers are also interested in the effects of metacognitively-oriented strategic instruction on reading comprehension (e.g. Garner, 1994, in first language contexts, and Chamot, 2005; Zhang, 2010). The efforts are aimed at developing learner autonomy, interdependence and self-regulation.

Metacognition helps people to perform many cognitive tasks more effectively. Strategies for promoting metacognition include self-questioning (e.g. “What do I already know about this topic? How have I solved problems like this before?”), thinking aloud while performing a task, and making graphic representations (e.g. concept maps, flow charts, semantic webs) of one’s thoughts and knowledge. Carr, 2002, argues that the physical act of writing plays a large part in the development of metacognitive skills.

Strategy Evaluation matrices (SEM) can help to improve the knowledge of cognition component of metacognition. The SEM works by identifying the declarative (Column 1), procedural (Column 2) and conditional (Column 3 and 4) knowledge about specific strategies. The SEM can help individuals identify the strength and weaknesses about certain strategies as well as introduce them to new strategies that they can add to their repertoire.

A regulation checklist (RC) is a useful strategy for improving the regulation of cognition aspect of one’s metacognition. RCs help individuals to implement a sequence of thoughts that allow them to go over their own metacognition. King (1991) found that fifth-grade students who used a regulation checklist outperformed control students when looking at a variety of questions including written problem solving, asking strategic questions, and elaborating information.

Examples of strategies that can be taught to students are word analysis skills, active reading strategies, listening skills, organisational skills and creating mnemonic devices.

Walker and Walker have developed a model of metacognition in school learning termed Steering Cognition, which describes the capacity of the mind to exert conscious control over its reasoning and processing strategies in relation to the external learning task. Studies have shown that pupils with an ability to exert metacognitive regulation over their attentional and reasoning strategies used when engaged in maths, and then shift those strategies when engaged in science or then English literature learning, associate with higher academic outcomes at secondary school.

Metastrategic Knowledge

“Metastrategic knowledge” (MSK) is a sub-component of metacognition that is defined as general knowledge about higher order thinking strategies. MSK had been defined as “general knowledge about the cognitive procedures that are being manipulated”. The knowledge involved in MSK consists of “making generalizations and drawing rules regarding a thinking strategy” and of “naming” the thinking strategy.

The important conscious act of a metastrategic strategy is the “conscious” awareness that one is performing a form of higher order thinking. MSK is an awareness of the type of thinking strategies being used in specific instances and it consists of the following abilities:

  • Making generalisations and drawing rules regarding a thinking strategy;
  • Naming the thinking strategy,
  • Explaining when, why and how such a thinking strategy should be used;
  • When it should not be used;
  • What are the disadvantages of not using appropriate strategies; and
  • What task characteristics call for the use of the strategy.

MSK deals with the broader picture of the conceptual problem. It creates rules to describe and understand the physical world around the people who utilise these processes called higher-order thinking. This is the capability of the individual to take apart complex problems in order to understand the components in problem. These are the building blocks to understanding the “big picture” (of the main problem) through reflection and problem solving.

Action

Both social and cognitive dimensions of sporting expertise can be adequately explained from a metacognitive perspective according to recent research. The potential of metacognitive inferences and domain-general skills including psychological skills training are integral to the genesis of expert performance. Moreover, the contribution of both mental imagery (e.g. mental practice) and attentional strategies (e.g. routines) to our understanding of expertise and metacognition is noteworthy. The potential of metacognition to illuminate our understanding of action was first highlighted by Aidan Moran who discussed the role of meta-attention in 1996. A recent research initiative, a research seminar series called META funded by the BPS, is exploring the role of the related constructs of meta-motivation, meta-emotion, and thinking and action (metacognition).

Mental Illness

Sparks of Interest

In the context of mental health, metacognition can be loosely defined as the process that “reinforces one’s subjective sense of being a self and allows for becoming aware that some of one’s thoughts and feelings are symptoms of an illness”. The interest in metacognition emerged from a concern for an individual’s ability to understand their own mental status compared to others as well as the ability to cope with the source of their distress. These insights into an individual’s mental health status can have a profound effect on overall prognosis and recovery. Metacognition brings many unique insights into the normal daily functioning of a human being. It also demonstrates that a lack of these insights compromises ‘normal’ functioning. This leads to less healthy functioning. In the autism spectrum, it is speculated that there is a profound deficit in Theory of Mind. In people who identify as alcoholics, there is a belief that the need to control cognition is an independent predictor of alcohol use over anxiety. Alcohol may be used as a coping strategy for controlling unwanted thoughts and emotions formed by negative perceptions. This is sometimes referred to as self medication.

Implications

Adrian Wells’ and Gerald Matthews’ theory proposes that when faced with an undesired choice, an individual can operate in two distinct modes: “object” and “metacognitive”. Object mode interprets perceived stimuli as truth, where metacognitive mode understands thoughts as cues that have to be weighted and evaluated. They are not as easily trusted. There are targeted interventions unique of each patient, that gives rise to the belief that assistance in increasing metacognition in people diagnosed with schizophrenia is possible through tailored psychotherapy. With a customised therapy in place clients then have the potential to develop greater ability to engage in complex self-reflection. This can ultimately be pivotal in the patient’s recovery process. In the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, cognitive formulations have greater attention to intrusive thoughts related to the disorder. “Cognitive self-consciousness” are the tendencies to focus attention on thought. Patients with OCD exemplify varying degrees of these “intrusive thoughts”. Patients also with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) also show negative thought process in their cognition.

Cognitive-attentional syndrome (CAS) characterises a metacognitive model of emotion disorder (CAS is consistent with the attention strategy of excessively focusing on the source of a threat). This ultimately develops through the client’s own beliefs. Metacognitive therapy attempts to correct this change in the CAS. One of the techniques in this model is called attention training (ATT). It was designed to diminish the worry and anxiety by a sense of control and cognitive awareness. ATT also trains clients to detect threats and test how controllable reality appears to be.

Following the work of Asher Koriat, who regards confidence as central aspect of metacognition, metacognitive training for psychosis aims at decreasing overconfidence in patients with schizophrenia and raising awareness of cognitive biases. According to a meta-analysis, this type of intervention improves delusions and hallucinations.

Works of Art as Metacognitive Artefacts

The concept of metacognition has also been applied to reader-response criticism. Narrative works of art, including novels, movies and musical compositions, can be characterised as metacognitive artefacts which are designed by the artist to anticipate and regulate the beliefs and cognitive processes of the recipient, for instance, how and in which order events and their causes and identities are revealed to the reader of a detective story. As Menakhem Perry has pointed out, mere order has profound effects on the aesthetical meaning of a text. Narrative works of art contain a representation of their own ideal reception process. They are something of a tool with which the creators of the work wish to attain certain aesthetical and even moral effects.

Mind Wandering

There is an intimate, dynamic interplay between mind wandering and metacognition. Metacognition serves to correct the wandering mind, suppressing spontaneous thoughts and bringing attention back to more “worthwhile” tasks.

Organisational Metacognition

The concept of metacognition has also been applied to collective teams and organisations in general, termed organisational metacognition.

  • Educational psychology: Branch of psychology concerned with the scientific study of human learning.
  • Educational technology: Use of technology in education to improve learning and teaching.
  • Epistemology: Branch of philosophy concerning knowledge.
  • Goal orientation.
  • Introspection: Examining one’s own thoughts and feelings.
  • Learning styles: Largely debunked theories that aim to account for differences in individuals’ learning.
  • Meta-emotion.
  • Metaknowledge.
  • Metaphilosophy: Philosophy of philosophy.
  • Münchhausen trilemma: A thought experiment used to demonstrate the impossibility of proving any truth.
  • Metatheory: Theory whose subject matter is itself a theory.
  • Mentalisation.
  • Mindstream: Buddhist concept of continuity of mind.
  • Mirror test: Animal self-awareness test to determine self-recognition in a mirror.
  • Phenomenology (philosophy): Philosophical method and schools of philosophy.
  • Phenomenology (psychology): Psychological study of subjective experience.
  • Psychological effects of Internet use.
  • Second-order cybernetics: Recursive application of cybernetics to itself and the reflexive practice of cybernetics according to this critique.

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What is Alprazolam?

Introduction

Alprazolam, sold under the brand name Xanax, among others, is a fast-acting tranquiliser of medium duration in the triazolobenzodiazepine (TBZD) class, which are benzodiazepines (BZDs) fused with a triazole ring.

It is most commonly used in short-term management of anxiety disorders, specifically panic disorder or generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). Other uses include the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea, together with other treatments. GAD improvement occurs generally within a week. Alprazolam is generally taken by mouth.

Common side effects include sleepiness, depression, headaches, feeling tired, dry mouth, and memory problems. Some of the sedation and tiredness may improve within a few days. Due to concerns about misuse, some do not recommend alprazolam as an initial treatment for panic disorder. Withdrawal or rebound symptoms may occur if use is suddenly decreased; gradually decreasing the dose over weeks or months may be required. Other rare risks include suicide, and a two fold increased risk of all cause mortality. Alprazolam, like other benzodiazepines, acts through the GABAA receptor.

Alprazolam was patented in 1971 and approved for medical use in the United States in 1981. Alprazolam is a Schedule IV controlled substance and is a common drug of abuse. It is available as a generic medication. In 2019, it was the 41st most commonly prescribed medication in the United States, with more than 17 million prescriptions.

Medical Uses

Alprazolam is mostly used in short term management of anxiety disorders, panic disorders, and nausea due to chemotherapy. Alprazolam may also be indicated for the treatment of GAD, as well as for the treatment of anxiety conditions with co-morbid depression. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) label advises that the physician should periodically reassess the usefulness of the drug.

Panic Disorder

Alprazolam is effective in the relief of moderate to severe anxiety and panic attacks. However, it is not a first line treatment since the development of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Alprazolam is no longer recommended in Australia for the treatment of panic disorder due to concerns regarding tolerance, dependence, and abuse. Most evidence shows that the benefits of alprazolam in treating panic disorder last only 4 to 10 weeks. However, people with panic disorder have been treated on an open basis for up to 8 months without apparent loss of benefit.

In the United States, alprazolam is FDA-approved for the treatment of panic disorder with or without agoraphobia. Alprazolam is recommended by the World Federation of Societies of Biological Psychiatry (WFSBP) for treatment-resistant cases of panic disorder where there is no history of tolerance or dependence.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety associated with depression is responsive to alprazolam. Clinical studies have shown that the effectiveness is limited to 4 months for anxiety disorders. However, the research into antidepressant properties of alprazolam is poor and has only assessed its short-term effects against depression. In one study, some long term, high-dosage users of alprazolam developed reversible depression. In the US, alprazolam is FDA-approved for the management of anxiety disorders (a condition corresponding most closely to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual DSM-IV-TR diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder) or the short-term relief of symptoms of anxiety. In the UK, alprazolam is recommended for the short-term treatment (2-4 weeks) of severe acute anxiety.

Nausea due to Chemotherapy

Alprazolam may be used in combination with other medications for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

Contraindications

Benzodiazepines require special precaution if used in children and in alcohol- or drug-dependent individuals. Particular care should be taken in pregnant or elderly people, people with substance use disorder history (particularly alcohol dependence), and people with comorbid psychiatric disorders. The use of alprazolam should be avoided or carefully monitored by medical professionals in individuals with: myasthenia gravis, acute narrow-angle glaucoma, severe liver deficiencies (e.g. cirrhosis), severe sleep apnoea, pre-existing respiratory depression, marked neuromuscular respiratory, acute pulmonary insufficiency, chronic psychosis, hypersensitivity or allergy to alprazolam or other benzodiazepines, and borderline personality disorder (where it may induce suicidality and dyscontrol).

Like all central nervous system depressants, alprazolam in larger-than-normal doses can cause significant deterioration in alertness and increase drowsiness, especially in those unaccustomed to the drug’s effects.

Elderly individuals should be cautious in the use of alprazolam due to the possibility of increased susceptibility to side-effects, especially loss of coordination and drowsiness.

Side Effects

Sedative drugs, including alprazolam, have been associated with an increased risk of death.

Possible side effects include:

  • Anterograde amnesia and concentration problems.
  • Ataxia, slurred speech.
  • Disinhibition.
  • Drowsiness, dizziness, lightheadedness, fatigue, unsteadiness, and impaired coordination, vertigo.
  • Dry mouth (infrequent).
  • Hallucinations (rare).
  • Jaundice (very rare).
  • Seizures (less common).
  • Skin rash, respiratory depression, constipation.
  • Suicidal ideation or suicide.
  • Urinary retention (infrequent).
  • Muscle weakness.

In September 2020, the FDA required the boxed warning be updated for all benzodiazepine medicines to describe the risks of abuse, misuse, addiction, physical dependence, and withdrawal reactions consistently across all the medicines in the class.

Paradoxical Reactions

Although unusual, the following paradoxical reactions have been shown to occur:

  • Aggression.
  • Mania, agitation, hyperactivity, and restlessness.
  • Rage, hostility.
  • Twitches and tremor.

Food and Drug Interactions

Alprazolam is primarily metabolised via CYP3A4. Combining CYP3A4 inhibitors such as cimetidine, erythromycin, norfluoxetine, fluvoxamine, itraconazole, ketoconazole, nefazodone, propoxyphene, and ritonavir delay the hepatic clearance of alprazolam, which may result in its accumulation and increased severity of its side effects.

Imipramine and desipramine have been reported to increase an average of 31% and 20% respectively by the concomitant administration of alprazolam tablets. Combined oral contraceptive pills reduce the clearance of alprazolam, which may lead to increased plasma levels of alprazolam and accumulation.

Alcohol is one of the most common interactions; alcohol and alprazolam taken in combination have a synergistic effect on one another, which can cause severe sedation, behavioural changes, and intoxication. The more alcohol and alprazolam taken, the worse the interaction. Combination of alprazolam with the herb kava can result in the development of a semi-comatose state. Plants in the genus Hypericum (including St. John’s wort) conversely can lower the plasma levels of alprazolam and reduce its therapeutic effect.

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Benzodiazepines cross the placenta, enter the foetus, and are also excreted in breast milk. Chronic administration of diazepam, another benzodiazepine, to nursing mothers has been reported to cause their infants to become lethargic and to lose weight.

The use of alprazolam during pregnancy is associated with congenital abnormalities, and use in the last trimester may cause foetal drug dependence and withdrawal symptoms in the post-natal period as well as neonatal flaccidity and respiratory problems. However, in long-term users of benzodiazepines, abrupt discontinuation due to concerns of teratogenesis has a high risk of causing extreme withdrawal symptoms and a severe rebound effect of the underlying mental health disorder. Spontaneous abortions may also result from abrupt withdrawal of psychotropic medications, including benzodiazepines.

Overdose

Refer to Benzodiazepine Overdose.

The maximum recommended daily dose is 10 milligrams per day.

Overdoses of alprazolam can be mild to severe depending on the quantity ingested and if other drugs are taken in combination.

Alprazolam overdoses cause excess central nervous system (CNS) depression and may include one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Coma and death if alprazolam is combined with other substances.
  • Fainting.
  • Hypotension (low blood pressure).
  • Hypoventilation (shallow breathing).
  • Impaired motor functions.
  • Dizziness.
  • Impaired balance.
  • Impaired or absent reflexes.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Orthostatic hypotension (fainting while standing up too quickly).
  • Somnolence (drowsiness).

Dependence and Withdrawal

Refer to Benzodiazepine Dependence and Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Syndrome.

The potential for misuse among those taking it for medical reasons is controversial, with some expert reviews stating that the risk is low and similar to that of other benzodiazepine drugs. Others state that there is a substantial risk of misuse and dependence in both patients and non-medical users and that the short half-life and rapid onset of action may increase the risk of misuse. Compared to the large number of prescriptions, relatively few individuals increase their dose on their own initiative or engage in drug-seeking behaviour.

Alprazolam, like other benzodiazepines, binds to specific sites on the GABAA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptor. When bound to these sites, which are referred to as benzodiazepine receptors, it modulates the effect of GABAA receptors and, thus, of GABAergic neurons. Long-term use causes adaptive changes in the benzodiazepine receptors, making them less sensitive to stimulation and thus making the drugs less potent.

Withdrawal and rebound symptoms commonly occur and necessitate a gradual reduction in dosage to minimise withdrawal effects when discontinuing.

Not all withdrawal effects are evidence of true dependence or withdrawal. Recurrence of symptoms such as anxiety may simply indicate that the drug was having its expected anti-anxiety effect and that, in the absence of the drug, the symptom has returned to pre-treatment levels. If the symptoms are more severe or frequent, the person may be experiencing a rebound effect due to the removal of the drug. Either of these can occur without the person actually being drug dependent.

Alprazolam and other benzodiazepines may also cause the development of physical dependence, tolerance, and benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms during rapid dose reduction or cessation of therapy after long-term treatment. There is a higher chance of withdrawal reactions if the drug is administered in a higher dosage than recommended, or if a person stops taking the medication altogether without slowly allowing the body to adjust to a lower-dosage regimen.

In 1992, Romach and colleagues reported that dose escalation is not a characteristic of long-term alprazolam users and that the majority of long-term alprazolam users change their initial pattern of regular use to one of symptom control only when required.

Some common symptoms of alprazolam discontinuation include malaise, weakness, insomnia, tachycardia, lightheadedness, and dizziness.

Those taking more than 4 mg per day have an increased potential for dependence. This medication may cause withdrawal symptoms upon abrupt withdrawal or rapid tapering, which in some cases have been known to cause seizures, as well as marked delirium similar to that produced by the anticholinergic tropane alkaloids of Datura (scopolamine and atropine). The discontinuation of this medication may also cause a reaction called rebound anxiety.

In a 1983 study, only 5% of patients who had abruptly stopped taking long-acting benzodiazepines after less than 8 months demonstrated withdrawal symptoms, but 43% of those who had been taking them for more than 8 months did. With alprazolam – a short-acting benzodiazepine – taken for 8 weeks, 65% of patients experienced significant rebound anxiety. To some degree, these older benzodiazepines are self-tapering.

The benzodiazepines diazepam and oxazepam have been found to produce fewer withdrawal reactions than alprazolam, temazepam, or lorazepam. Factors that determine the risk of psychological dependence or physical dependence and the severity of the benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms during dose reduction of alprazolam include: dosage used, length of use, frequency of dosing, personality characteristics of the individual, previous use of cross-dependent/cross-tolerant drugs (alcohol or other sedative-hypnotic drugs), current use of cross-dependent/-tolerant drugs, use of other short-acting, high-potency benzodiazepines, and method of discontinuation.

Pharmacology

Alprazolam is a positive allosteric modulator of the GABA type A receptor. When it binds to the receptor, effects of GABA are enhanced leading to inhibition of neurones in the brain. This results in effects including reduced anxiety, muscle relaxant, antidepressant and anticonvulsant activity. The activity of alprazolam in the central nervous system is dose dependent.

Mechanism of Action

Alprazolam is classed as a high-potency triazolobenzodiazepine: a benzodiazepine with a triazole ring attached to its structure. As a benzodiazepine, alprazolam produces a variety of therapeutic and adverse effects by binding to the GABAA benzodiazepine receptor site and modulating its function; GABA receptors are the most prolific inhibitory receptor within the brain. The GABA chemical and receptor system mediates inhibitory or calming effects of alprazolam on the nervous system. Binding of alprazolam to the GABAA receptor, a chloride ion channel, enhances the effects of GABA, a neurotransmitter. When GABA binds the GABAA receptor the channel opens and chloride enters the cell which makes it more resistant to depolarisation. Therefore, alprazolam has a depressant effect on synaptic transmission to reduce anxiety.

The GABAA receptor is made up of 5 subunits out of a possible 19, and GABAA receptors made up of different combinations of subunits have different properties, different locations within the brain, and, importantly, different activities with regard to benzodiazepines. Alprazolam and other triazolobenzodiazepines such as triazolam that have a triazole ring fused to their diazepine ring appear to have antidepressant properties. This is perhaps due to the similarities shared with tricyclic antidepressants, as they have two benzene rings fused to a diazepine ring. Alprazolam causes a marked suppression of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. The therapeutic properties of alprazolam are similar to other benzodiazepines and include anxiolytic, anticonvulsant, muscle relaxant, hypnotic and amnesic; however, it is used mainly as an anxiolytic.

Giving alprazolam, as compared to lorazepam, has been demonstrated to elicit a statistically significant increase in extracellular dopamine D1 and D2 concentrations in the striatum.

Pharmacokinetics

Alprazolam is taken orally, and is absorbed well – 80% of alprazolam binds to proteins in the serum (the majority binding to albumin). The concentration of alprazolam peaks after one to two hours.

Alprazolam is metabolised in the liver, mostly by the enzyme cytochrome P450 3A4 (CYP3A4). Two major metabolites are produced: 4-hydroxyalprazolam and α-hydroxyalprazolam, as well as an inactive benzophenone. The low concentrations and low potencies of 4-hydroxyalprazolam and α-hydroxyalprazolam indicate that they have little to no contribution to the effects of alprazolam.

The metabolites, as well as some unmetabolised alprazolam, are filtered out by the kidneys and are excreted in the urine.

Chemistry

Physical Properties

Alprazolam is a triazole and benzodiazepine derivative substituted with a phenyl group at position 6, with a chlorine atom at position 8 and with a methyl group at position 1. It is an analogue of triazolam, the difference between them being the absence of a chlorine atom in the ‘ortho’ position of the phenyl ring. It is slightly soluble in chloroform, soluble in alcohol, slightly soluble in acetone and insoluble in water. It has a melting point in the temperature range 228-229.5 °C.

Synthesis

For the synthesis of alprazolam the same method can be used as for triazolam, excepting that it starts from 2-amino-5-chlorobenzophenone. However, an alternative easier synthesis starting with 2,6-dichloro-4-phenylquinoline has been suggested, in which it reacts with hydrazine giving 6-chloro-2-hydrazino-4-phenylquinoline. Boiling the mixture with triethyl orthoacetate results in cyclization with the formation of the triazole ring. The product undergoes oxidative degradation in the presence of periodate and ruthenium dioxide in acetone solution, giving 2-[4-(3′-methyl-1,2,4-triazolo)]-5-chlorobenzophenone. Oxy-methylation with formaldehyde results in a product that is treated with phosphorus tribromide, when 2-[4-(3′-methyl-5′-bromomethyl-1,2,4-triazolo)]-5-chlorobenzophenone is obtained. By substituting the bromine atom with an amino group conferred by ammonia, it forms alprazolam triazolobenzophenone, following which an intermolecular heterocyclisation takes place to obtain alprazolam.

Detection

Quantification of alprazolam in blood and plasma samples may be necessary to confirm a diagnosis of intoxication in hospitalised patients, or to provide evidence in the case of crimes e.g., impaired driving arrest, or to assist in a thorough forensic investigation, e.g. in a medicolegal death investigation. Blood or plasma alprazolam concentrations are usually in a range of 10-100 μg/L in persons receiving the drug therapeutically, 100-300 μg/L in those arrested for impaired driving, and 300–2000 μg/L in victims of acute overdosage. Most of the commercial immunoassays used for the benzodiazepine class of drugs cross-react with alprazolam, but confirmation and quantitative determination are usually done by chromatographic techniques.

Forms of Alprazolam

Alprazolam regular release and orally disintegrating tablets are available as 0.25 mg, 0.5 mg, 1 mg, and 2 mg tablets, while extended release tablets are available as 0.5 mg, 1 mg, 2 mg, and 3 mg. Liquid alprazolam is available in a 1 mg/mL oral concentrate. Inactive ingredients in alprazolam tablets and solutions include microcrystalline cellulose, corn starch, docusate sodium, povidone, sodium starch glycollate, lactose monohydrate, magnesium stearate, colloidal silicon dioxide, and sodium benzoate. In addition, the 0.25 mg tablet contains D&C Yellow No. 10 and the 0.5 mg tablet contains FD&C Yellow No. 6 and D&C Yellow No. 10.

Society and Culture

Patent

Alprazolam is covered under US Patent 3,987,052, which was filed on 29 October 1969, granted on 19 October 1976, and expired in September 1993.

Recreational Use

Refer to Benzodiazepine Use Disorder.

There is a risk of misuse and dependence in both patients and non-medical users of alprazolam; alprazolam’s high affinity binding, high potency, and rapid onset increase its abuse potential. The physical dependence and withdrawal syndrome of alprazolam also add to its addictive nature. In the small subgroup of individuals who escalate their doses there is usually a history of alcohol or other substance use disorders. Despite this, most prescribed alprazolam users do not use their medication recreationally, and the long-term use of benzodiazepines does not generally correlate with the need for dose escalation. However, based on US findings from the Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS), an annual compilation of patient characteristics in substance abuse treatment facilities in the United States, admissions due to “primary tranquiliser” (including, but not limited to, benzodiazepine-type) drug use increased 79% from 1992 to 2002, suggesting that misuse of benzodiazepines may be on the rise. In 2011, The New York Times reported, “The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention last year reported an 89 percent increase in emergency room visits nationwide related to nonmedical benzodiazepine use between 2004 and 2008.”

Alprazolam is one of the most commonly prescribed and misused benzodiazepines in the United States. A large-scale nationwide US government study conducted by SAMHSA found that, in the US, benzodiazepines are recreationally the most frequently used pharmaceuticals due to their widespread availability, accounting for 35% of all drug-related visits to hospital emergency and urgent care facilities. Men and women are equally likely to use benzodiazepines recreationally. The report found that alprazolam is the most common benzodiazepine for recreational use, followed by clonazepam, lorazepam, and diazepam. The number of emergency department visits due to benzodiazepines increased by 36% between 2004 and 2006.

Regarding the significant increases detected, it is worthwhile to consider that the number of pharmaceuticals dispensed for legitimate therapeutic uses may be increasing over time, and DAWN estimates are not adjusted to take such increases into account. Nor do DAWN estimates take into account the increases in the population or in ED use between 2004 and 2006.

Those at a particularly high risk for misuse and dependence are people with a history of alcoholism or drug abuse and/or dependence and people with borderline personality disorder.

Alprazolam, along with other benzodiazepines, is often used with other recreational drugs. These uses include aids to relieve the panic or distress of dysphoric (“bad trip”) reactions to psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, and the drug-induced agitation and insomnia in the “comedown” stages of stimulant use, such as amphetamine, cocaine, and MDMA allowing sleep. Alprazolam may also be used with other depressant drugs, such as ethanol, heroin, and other opioids, in an attempt to enhance their psychological effects. Alprazolam may be used in conjunction with cannabis, with users citing a synergistic effect achieved after consuming the combination.

The poly-drug use of powerful depressant drugs poses the highest level of health concerns due to a significant increase in the likelihood of experiencing an overdose, which may cause fatal respiratory depression.

A 1990 study found that diazepam has a higher misuse potential relative to many other benzodiazepines and that some data suggest that alprazolam and lorazepam resemble diazepam in this respect.

Anecdotally, injection of alprazolam has been reported, causing dangerous damage to blood vessels, closure of blood vessels (embolisation) and decay of muscle tissue (rhabdomyolysis). Alprazolam is not very soluble in water – when crushed in water it does not fully dissolve (40 µg/ml of H2O at pH 7). There have also been anecdotal reports of alprazolam being snorted.[111] Due to the low weight of a dose, alprazolam, in one case, was distributed on blotter paper in a manner similar to LSD.

Slang terms for alprazolam vary from place to place. Some of the more common terms are modified versions of the trade name “Xanax”, such as Xannies (or Xanies) and the phonetic equivalent of Zannies; references to their drug classes, such as benzos or downers; or remark upon their shape or colour (most commonly a straight, perforated tablet or an oval-shaped pill): bars, ladders, Xanbars, Xans, Z-bars, handle bars, beans, footballs, planks, poles, sticks, blues, or blue footballs.

Availability

Alprazolam is available in English-speaking countries under the following brand names:

  • Alprax, Alprocontin, Alzam, Alzolam, Anzilum, Apo-Alpraz, Helex, Kalma, Mylan-Alprazolam, Niravam, Novo-Alprazol, Nu-Alpraz, Pacyl, Restyl, Tranax, Trika, Xycalm, Xanax, Xanor, Zolam, Zopax.

In December 2013, in anticipation of the rescheduling of alprazolam to Schedule 8 in Australia, Pfizer Australia announced they would be discontinuing the Xanax brand in Australia as it was no longer commercially viable.

Alprazolam has varied legal status depending on jurisdiction:

  • In the United States, alprazolam is a prescription drug and is assigned to Schedule IV of the Controlled Substances Act by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
  • Under the UK drug misuse classification system, benzodiazepines are Class C drugs (Schedule 4).
    • In the UK, alprazolam is not available on the NHS and can only be obtained on a private prescription.
  • In Ireland, alprazolam is a Schedule 4 medicine.
  • In Sweden, alprazolam is a prescription drug in List IV (Schedule 4) under the Narcotics Drugs Act (1968).
  • In the Netherlands, alprazolam is a List 2 substance of the Opium Law and is available for prescription.
  • In Germany, alprazolam can be prescribed normally in doses up to 1 mg.
    • Higher doses are scheduled as Anlage III drugs and require a special prescription form.
  • In Australia, alprazolam was originally a Schedule 4 (Prescription Only) medication; however, as of February 2014, it has become a Schedule 8 medication, subjecting it to more rigorous prescribing requirements.
  • In the Philippines, alprazolam is legally classified as a “dangerous drug” under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, along with other schedule drugs listed in the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances.
    • The importation of dangerous drugs including alprazolam, requires authorisation from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.
  • Internationally, alprazolam is included under the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances as Schedule IV.

What is Trifluoperazine?

Introduction

Trifluoperazine, sold under a number of brand names, is a typical antipsychotic primarily used to treat schizophrenia.

It may also be used short term in those with generalised anxiety disorder but is less preferred to benzodiazepines. It is of the phenothiazine chemical class.

Medical Uses

Schizophrenia

Trifluoperazine is an effective antipsychotic for people with schizophrenia. There is low-quality evidence that trifluoperazine increases the chance of being improved when compared to placebo when people are followed up for 19 weeks. There is low-quality evidence that trifluoperazine reduces the risk of relapse when compared with placebo when people are followed for 5 months. As of 2014 there was no good evidence for a difference between trifluoperazine and placebo with respect to the risk of experiencing intensified symptoms over a 16-week period nor in reducing significant agitation or distress.

There is no good evidence that trifluoperazine is more effective for schizophrenia than lower-potency antipsychotics like chlorpromazine, chlorprothixene, thioridazine and levomepromazine, but trifluoperazine appears to cause more adverse effects than these drugs.

Other

It appears to be effective for people with generalised anxiety disorder but the benefit-risk ratio was unclear as of 2005.

It has been experimentally used as a drug to kill eukaryotic pathogens in humans.

Side Effects

Its use in many parts of the world has declined because of highly frequent and severe early and late tardive dyskinesia, a type of extrapyramidal symptom. The annual development rate of tardive dyskinesia may be as high as 4%.

A 2004 meta-analysis of the studies on trifluoperazine found that it is more likely than placebo to cause extrapyramidal side effects such as akathisia, dystonia, and Parkinsonism. It is also more likely to cause somnolence and anticholinergic side effects such as red eye and xerostomia (dry mouth). All antipsychotics can cause the rare and sometimes fatal neuroleptic malignant syndrome. Trifluoperazine can lower the seizure threshold. The antimuscarinic action of trifluoperazine can cause excessive dilation of the pupils (mydriasis), which increases the chances of patients with hyperopia developing glaucoma.

Contraindications

Trifluoperazine is contraindicated in CNS depression, coma, and blood dyscrasias. Trifluoperazine should be used with caution in patients suffering from renal or hepatic impairment.

Mechanism of Action

Trifluoperazine has central antiadrenergic, antidopaminergic, and minimal anticholinergic effects. It is believed to work by blockading dopamine D1 and D2 receptors in the mesocortical and mesolimbic pathways, relieving or minimising such symptoms of schizophrenia as hallucinations, delusions, and disorganised thought and speech.

Names

Brand names include Eskazinyl, Eskazine, Jatroneural, Modalina, Stelazine, Stilizan, Terfluzine, Trifluoperaz, Triftazin.

In the United Kingdom and some other countries, trifluoperazine is sold and marketed under the brand ‘Stelazine’.

The drug is sold as tablet, liquid and ‘Trifluoperazine-injectable USP’ for deep intramuscular short-term use. GP studying pharmacological data has indicated cases of neck vertebrae irreversible fusing leading to NHS preparations being predominantly of the liquid form trifluoperazine as opposed to the tablet form as in Stela zine etc.

In the past, trifluoperazine was used in fixed combinations with the MAO inhibitor (antidepressant) tranylcypromine (tranylcypromine/trifluoperazine) to attenuate the strong stimulating effects of this antidepressant. This combination was sold under the brand name Jatrosom N. Likewise a combination with amobarbital (potent sedative/hypnotic agent) for the amelioration of psychoneurosis and insomnia existed under the brand name Jalonac. In Italy the first combination is still available, sold under the brand name Parmodalin (10 mg of tranylcypromine and 1 mg of trifluoperazine).

What is Venlafaxine?

Introduction

Venlafaxine, sold under the brand name Effexor among others, is an antidepressant medication of the serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) class.

It is used to treat major depressive disorder (MDD), generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and social phobia. It may also be used for chronic pain. It is taken by mouth.

Common side effects include loss of appetite, constipation, dry mouth, dizziness, sweating, and sexual problems. Severe side effects include an increased risk of suicide, mania, and serotonin syndrome. Antidepressant withdrawal syndrome may occur if stopped. There are concerns that use during the later part of pregnancy can harm the baby. How it works is not entirely clear, but it seems to be related to the potentiation of the activity of some neurotransmitters in the brain.

Venlafaxine was approved for medical use in the United States in 1993. It is available as a generic medication. In 2018, it was the 50th most commonly prescribed medication in the United States with more than 16 million prescriptions.

Medical Uses

Venlafaxine is used primarily for the treatment of depression, general anxiety disorder, social phobia, panic disorder, and vasomotor symptoms.

Venlafaxine has been used off label for the treatment of diabetic neuropathy and migraine prevention (in some people, however, venlafaxine can exacerbate or cause migraines). It may work on pain via effects on the opioid receptor. It has also been found to reduce the severity of ‘hot flashes’ in menopausal women and men on hormonal therapy for the treatment of prostate cancer.

Due to its action on both the serotoninergic and adrenergic systems, venlafaxine is also used as a treatment to reduce episodes of cataplexy, a form of muscle weakness, in patients with the sleep disorder narcolepsy. Some open-label and three double-blind studies have suggested the efficacy of venlafaxine in the treatment of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Clinical trials have found possible efficacy in those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Case reports, open trials and blinded comparisons with established medications have suggested the efficacy of venlafaxine in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Depression

A comparative meta-analysis of 21 major antidepressants found that venlafaxine, agomelatine, amitriptyline, escitalopram, mirtazapine, paroxetine, and vortioxetine were more effective than other antidepressants, although the quality of many comparisons was assessed as low or very low.

Venlafaxine was similar in efficacy to the atypical antidepressant bupropion; however, the remission rate was lower for venlafaxine. In a double-blind study, patients who did not respond to an SSRI were switched to either venlafaxine or another SSRI (citalopram); similar improvement was observed in both groups.

Studies of venlafaxine in children have not established its efficacy.

Studies have shown that the extended release is superior to the immediate release form of venlafaxine.

A meta-analysis shown that efficacity of venlafaxine is not correlated with baseline severity of depression.

Dosage

Venlafaxine has been shown to have an optimal efficacity and tolerability towards the lower end of their licensed dose range.

Contraindications

Venlafaxine is not recommended in patients hypersensitive to it, nor should it be taken by anyone who is allergic to the inactive ingredients, which include gelatin, cellulose, ethylcellulose, iron oxide, titanium dioxide and hypromellose. It should not be used in conjunction with a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), as it can cause potentially fatal serotonin syndrome.

Adverse Effects

Refer to Adverse Effects of Venlafaxine.

Venlafaxine can increase eye pressure, so those with glaucoma may require more frequent eye checks.

A 2017 meta-analysis estimated venlafaxine discontinuation rate to 9.4%.

Suicide

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all antidepressants, including venlafaxine, to carry a black box warning with a generic warning about a possible suicide risk.

A 2014 meta analysis of 21 clinical trials of venlafaxine for the treatment of depression in adults found that compared to placebo, venlafaxine reduced the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviour.

A study conducted in Finland followed more than 15,000 patients for 3.4 years. Venlafaxine increased suicide risk by 60% (statistically significant), as compared to no treatment. At the same time, fluoxetine (Prozac) halved the suicide risk.

In another study, the data on more than 200,000 cases were obtained from the UK general practice research database. At baseline, patients prescribed venlafaxine had a greater number of risk factors for suicide (such as prior suicide attempts) than patients treated with other anti-depressants. The patients taking venlafaxine had significantly higher risk of completed suicide than the ones on fluoxetine or citalopram (Celexa). After adjusting for known risk factors, venlafaxine was associated with an increased risk of suicide relative to fluoxetine and dothiepin that was not statistically significant. A statistically significant greater risk for attempted suicide remained after adjustment, but the authors concluded that it could be due to residual confounding.[28]

An analysis of clinical trials by the FDA statisticians showed the incidence of suicidal behaviour among the adults on venlafaxine to be not significantly different from fluoxetine or placebo.

Venlafaxine is contraindicated in children, adolescents and young adults. According to the FDA analysis of clinical trials venlafaxine caused a statistically significant 5-fold increase in suicidal ideation and behaviour in persons younger than 25. In another analysis, venlafaxine was no better than placebo among children (7-11 years old), but improved depression in adolescents (12-17 years old). However, in both groups, hostility and suicidal behaviour increased in comparison to those receiving a placebo. In a study involving antidepressants that had failed to produce results in depressed teenagers, teens whose SSRI treatment had failed who were randomly switched to either another SSRI or to venlafaxine showed an increased rate of suicide on venlafaxine. Among teenagers who were suicidal at the beginning of the study, the rate of suicidal attempts and self-harm was significantly higher, by about 60%, after the switch to venlafaxine than after the switch to an SSRI.

Discontinuation Syndrome

Refer to Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome.

People stopping venlafaxine commonly experience discontinuation symptoms such as dysphoria, headaches, nausea, irritability, emotional lability, sensation of electric shocks, and sleep disturbance. Venlafaxine has a higher rate of moderate to severe discontinuation symptoms relative to other antidepressants (similar to the SSRI paroxetine).

The higher risk and increased severity of discontinuation syndrome symptoms relative to other antidepressants may be related to the short half-life of venlafaxine and its active metabolite. After discontinuing venlafaxine, the levels of both serotonin and norepinephrine decrease, leading to the hypothesis that the discontinuation symptoms could result from an overly rapid reduction of neurotransmitter levels.

Serotonin Syndrome

Refer to Serotonin Syndrome.

The development of a potentially life-threatening serotonin syndrome (also more recently classified as “serotonin toxicity”) may occur with venlafaxine treatment, particularly with concomitant use of serotonergic drugs, including but not limited to SSRIs and SNRIs, many hallucinogens such as tryptamines and phenethylamines (e.g. LSD/LSA, DMT, MDMA, mescaline), dextromethorphan (DXM), tramadol, tapentadol, pethidine (meperidine) and triptans and with drugs that impair metabolism of serotonin (including MAOIs). Serotonin syndrome symptoms may include mental status changes (e.g. agitation, hallucinations, coma), autonomic instability (e.g. tachycardia, labile blood pressure, hyperthermia), neuromuscular aberrations (e.g. hyperreflexia, incoordination) or gastrointestinal symptoms (e.g. nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea). Venlafaxine-induced serotonin syndrome has also been reported when venlafaxine has been taken in isolation in overdose. An abortive serotonin syndrome state, in which some but not all of the symptoms of the full serotonin syndrome are present, has been reported with venlafaxine at mid-range dosages (150 mg per day). A case of a patient with serotonin syndrome induced by low-dose venlafaxine (37.5 mg per day) has also been reported.

Pregnancy

There are few well-controlled studies of venlafaxine in pregnant women. A study released in May 2010 by the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggests use of venlafaxine doubles the risk of miscarriage. Consequently, venlafaxine should only be used during pregnancy if clearly needed. A large case-control study done as part of the National Birth Defects Prevention Study and published in 2012 found a significant association of venlafaxine use during pregnancy and several birth defects including anencephaly, cleft palate, septal heart defects and coarctation of the aorta. Prospective studies have not shown any statistically significant congenital malformations. There have, however, been some reports of self-limiting effects on newborn infants. As with other serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs), these effects are generally short-lived, lasting only 3 to 5 days, and rarely resulting in severe complications.

Drug Interactions

Venlafaxine should be taken with caution when using St John’s wort. Venlafaxine may lower the seizure threshold, and co-administration with other drugs that lower the seizure threshold such as bupropion and tramadol should be done with caution and at low doses.

Bipolar Disorder

Venlafaxine is neither recommended nor approved for the treatment of major depressive episodes in bipolar disorder, as it can induce mania or mixed episodes. Venlafaxine appears to be more likely than the SSRIs and bupropion to induce mania and mixed episodes in bipolar patients.

Liver Injury

A rare but serious side effect of venlafaxine is liver injury. It reaches man and female patients with a median age of 44 years. Cessation of venlafaxine is one of the appropriate measure of management. The mechanism of venlafaxine related-liver injury is unclear but may be related to a CYP2D6 polymorphism.

Other

In rare cases, drug-induced akathisia (movement disorder) can occur after use in some people.

Venlafaxine should be used with caution in hypertensive patients. Venlafaxine must be discontinued if significant hypertension persists. It can also have undesirable cardiovascular effects.

Overdose

Most patients overdosing with venlafaxine develop only mild symptoms. Plasma venlafaxine concentrations in overdose survivors have ranged from 6 to 24 mg/l, while postmortem blood levels in fatalities are often in the 10-90 mg/l range. Published retrospective studies report that venlafaxine overdosage may be associated with an increased risk of fatal outcome compared to that observed with SSRI antidepressant products, but lower than that for tricyclic antidepressants. Healthcare professionals are advised to prescribe Effexor and Effexor XR in the smallest quantity of capsules consistent with good patient management to reduce the risk of overdose. It is usually reserved as a second-line treatment for depression due to a combination of its superior efficacy to the first-line treatments like fluoxetine, paroxetine and citalopram and greater frequency of side effects like nausea, headache, insomnia, drowsiness, dry mouth, constipation, sexual dysfunction, sweating and nervousness.

There is no specific antidote for venlafaxine, and management is generally supportive, providing treatment for the immediate symptoms. Administration of activated charcoal can prevent absorption of the drug. Monitoring of cardiac rhythm and vital signs is indicated. Seizures are managed with benzodiazepines or other anticonvulsants. Forced diuresis, hzemodialysis, exchange transfusion, or hemoperfusion are unlikely to be of benefit in hastening the removal of venlafaxine, due to the drug’s high volume of distribution.

Mechanism of Action

Pharmacology

Venlafaxine is usually categorised as a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI), but it has also been referred to as a serotonin-norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor (SNDRI). It works by blocking the transporter “reuptake” proteins for key neurotransmitters affecting mood, thereby leaving more active neurotransmitters in the synapse. The neurotransmitters affected are serotonin and norepinephrine. Additionally, in high doses it weakly inhibits the reuptake of dopamine, since dopamine is inactivated by norepinephrine reuptake in the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex largely lacks dopamine transporters; therefore venlafaxine can increase dopamine neurotransmission in this part of the brain.

Venlafaxine indirectly affects opioid receptors as well as the alpha2-adrenergic receptor, and was shown to increase pain threshold in mice. These benefits with respect to pain were reversed with naloxone, an opioid antagonist, thus supporting an opioid mechanism.

Pharmacokinetics

Venlafaxine is well absorbed, with at least 92% of an oral dose being absorbed into systemic circulation. It is extensively metabolized in the liver via the CYP2D6 isoenzyme to desvenlafaxine (O-desmethylvenlafaxine, now marketed as a separate medication named Pristiq), which is just as potent an SNRI as the parent compound, meaning that the differences in metabolism between extensive and poor metabolisers are not clinically important in terms of efficacy. Side effects, however, are reported to be more severe in CYP2D6 poor metabolisers. Steady-state concentrations of venlafaxine and its metabolite are attained in the blood within 3 days. Therapeutic effects are usually achieved within 3 to 4 weeks. No accumulation of venlafaxine has been observed during chronic administration in healthy subjects. The primary route of excretion of venlafaxine and its metabolites is via the kidneys. The half-life of venlafaxine is relatively short, so patients are directed to adhere to a strict medication routine, avoiding missing a dose. Even a single missed dose can result in withdrawal symptoms.

Venlafaxine is a substrate of P-glycoprotein (P-gp), which pumps it out of the brain. The gene encoding P-gp, ABCB1, has the SNP rs2032583, with alleles C and T. The majority of people (about 70% of Europeans and 90% of East Asians) have the TT variant. A 2007 study found that carriers of at least one C allele (variant CC or CT) are 7.72 times more likely than non-carriers to achieve remission after 4 weeks of treatment with amitriptyline, citalopram, paroxetine or venlafaxine (all P-gp substrates). The study included patients with mood disorders other than major depression, such as bipolar II; the ratio is 9.4 if these other disorders are excluded. At the 6-week mark, 75% of C-carriers had remitted, compared to only 38% of non-carriers.

Chemistry

The IUPAC name of venlafaxine is 1-[2-(dimethylamino)-1-(4 methoxyphenyl)ethyl]cyclohexanol, though it is sometimes referred to as (±)-1-[a-[a-(dimethylamino)methyl]-p-methoxybenzyl]cyclohexanol. It consists of two enantiomers present in equal quantities (termed a racemic mixture), both of which have the empirical formula of C17H27NO2. It is usually sold as a mixture of the respective hydrochloride salts, (R/S)-1-[2-(dimethylamino)-1-(4 methoxyphenyl)ethyl]cyclohexanol hydrochloride, C17H28ClNO2, which is a white to off-white crystalline solid. Venlafaxine is structurally and pharmacologically related to the atypical opioid analgesic tramadol, and more distantly to the newly released opioid tapentadol, but not to any of the conventional antidepressant drugs, including tricyclic antidepressants, SSRIs, MAOIs, or RIMAs.

Venlafaxine extended release is chemically the same as normal venlafaxine. The extended release (controlled release) version distributes the release of the drug into the gastrointestinal tract over a longer period than normal venlafaxine. This results in a lower peak plasma concentration. Studies have shown that the extended release formula has a lower incidence of nausea as a side effect, resulting in better compliance.

Society and Culture

Venlafaxine was originally marketed as Effexor in most of the world; generic venlafaxine has been available since around 2008 and extended release venlaxafine has been available since around 2010.

As of January 2020 venlafaxine is marketed under many brand names worldwide, many with alternative extended release forms (not shown): Adefaxin, Alenthus, Altven, Alventa, Amfax, Anapresin, Ansifix, Arafaxina, Argofan, Arrow Venlafaxine, Axone, Axyven, Benolaxe, Blossom, Calmdown, Dalium, Defaxine, Depefex, Depretaxer, Deprevix, Deprexor, Deprixol, Depurol, Desinax, Dislaven, Dobupal, Duofaxin, Easyfor, Ectien, Eduxon, Efastad, Efaxin, Efaxine, Efectin, Efegen, Efevelon, Efevelone, Efexiva, Efexor, Effegad, Effexine, Effexor, Elafax, Elaxine, Elify, Enpress, Enlafax, Envelaf, Falven, Faxigen, Faxine, Faxiprol, Faxiven, Faxolet, Flavix, Flaxen, Fobiless, Ganavax, Idixor, Idoxen, Intefred, Illovex, Lafactin, Lafaxin, Lanvexin, Laroxin, Levest, Limbic, Linexel, Maxibral, Mazda, Melocin, Memomax, Mezine, Neoxacina, Neoxacina, Nervix, Norafexine, Norezor, Norpilen, Noviser, Nulev, Odiven, Olwexya, Oriven, Paxifar, Politid, Pracet, Prefaxine, Psiseven, Quilarex, Rafax, Senexon, Sentidol, Sentosa, Serosmine, Seroxine, Sesaren, Subelan, Sulinex, Sunveniz, Sunvex, Symfaxin, Tedema, Tifaxin, Tonpular, Trevilor, Tudor, Vafexin, Valosine, Vandral, Velaf, Velafax, Velahibin, Velaxin, Velept, Velpine, Venax, Venaxin, Venaxx, Vencarm, Vencontrol, Vendep, Venegis, Venex, Venexor, Venfalex, Venfax, Ven-Fax, Venfaxine, Venforin, Venforspine, Veniba, Veniz, Venjoy, Venla, Venlabax, Venlablue, Venlabrain, Venladep, Venladex, Venladoz, Venlaf, Venlafab, Venlafaxin, Venlafaxina, Venlafaxine, Venlagamma, Venlalic, Venlamax, Venlamylan, Venlaneo, Venlapine, Venla-Q, Venlasand, Venlatrin, Venlavitae, Venlax, Venlaxin, Venlaxine, Venlaxor, Venlazid, Venlectine, Venlifax, Venlift, Venlix, Venlobax, Venlofex, Venlor, Venorion, Venozap, Vensate, Ventab, Venxin, Venxor, Venzip, Vexamode, Vfax, Viepax, ViePax, Voxafen, Zacalen, Zanfexa, Zaredrop, Zarelis, Zarelix, and Zenexor.

What is Escitalopram?

Introduction

Escitalopram, sold under the brand names Cipralex and Lexapro, among others, is an antidepressant of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class. Escitalopram is mainly used to treat major depressive disorder (MDD) or generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). It is taken by mouth.

Common side effects include trouble sleeping, nausea, sexual problems, and feeling tired. More serious side effects may include suicide in people under the age of 25. It is unclear if use during pregnancy or breastfeeding is safe. Escitalopram is the (S)-stereoisomer (left-handed version) of citalopram (which exists as a racemate), hence the name escitalopram. In other words, escitalopram is a chiral switch of citalopram.

Escitalopram was approved for medical use in the United States in 2002. Escitalopram is sometimes replaced by twice the dose of citalopram. In 2018, it was the 22nd most commonly prescribed medication in the United States with more than 25 million prescriptions.

Brief History

Escitalopram was developed in close cooperation between Lundbeck and Forest Laboratories. Its development was initiated in the summer of 1997, and the resulting new drug application was submitted to the FDA in March 2001. The short time (3.5 years) it took to develop escitalopram can be attributed to the previous extensive experience of Lundbeck and Forest with citalopram, which has similar pharmacology.

The FDA issued the approval of escitalopram for major depression in August 2002 and for GAD in December 2003. On 23 May 2006, the FDA approved a generic version of escitalopram by Teva. On 14 July of that year, however, the US District Court of Delaware decided in favour of Lundbeck regarding the patent infringement dispute and ruled the patent on escitalopram valid.

In 2006, Forest Laboratories was granted an 828-day (2 years and 3 months) extension on its US patent for escitalopram. This pushed the patent expiration date from 07 December 2009, to 14 September 2011. Together with the 6-month paediatric exclusivity, the final expiration date was 14 March 2012.

Medical Uses

Escitalopram has FDA approval for the treatment of major depressive disorder in adolescents and adults, and generalized anxiety disorder in adults. In European countries and the United Kingdom, it is approved for depression (MDD) and anxiety disorders, these include: GAD, social anxiety disorder (SAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and panic disorder with or without agoraphobia. In Australia it is approved for major depressive disorder.

Depression

Escitalopram was approved by regulatory authorities for the treatment of major depressive disorder on the basis of four placebo-controlled, double-blind trials, three of which demonstrated a statistical superiority over placebo.

Controversy existed regarding the effectiveness of escitalopram compared with its predecessor, citalopram. The importance of this issue followed from the greater cost of escitalopram relative to the generic mixture of isomers of citalopram, prior to the expiration of the escitalopram patent in 2012, which led to charges of evergreening. Accordingly, this issue has been examined in at least 10 different systematic reviews and meta analyses. As of 2012, reviews had concluded (with caveats in some cases) that escitalopram is modestly superior to citalopram in efficacy and tolerability.

A 2011 review concluded that second-generation antidepressants appear equally effective, although they may differ in onset and side effects. Treatment guidelines issued by the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence and by the American Psychiatric Association generally reflect this viewpoint.

In 2018, a systematic review and network meta-analysis comparing the efficacy and acceptability of 21 antidepressant drugs showed escitalopram to be one of the most effective.

Anxiety Disorder

Escitalopram appears to be effective in treating general anxiety disorder, with relapse on escitalopram at 20% rather than placebo at 50%.

Escitalopram appears effective in treating social anxiety disorder.

Other

Escitalopram is effective in reducing the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, whether taken continuously or in the luteal phase only. There are no good data available for escitalopram as treatment for seasonal affective disorder as of 2021.

Side Effects

Escitalopram, like other SSRIs, has been shown to affect sexual functions causing side effects such as decreased libido, delayed ejaculation, and anorgasmia.

There is also evidence that SSRIs may cause an increase in suicidal ideation. An analysis conducted by the FDA found a statistically insignificant 1.5 to 2.4-fold (depending on the statistical technique used) increase of suicidality among the adults treated with escitalopram for psychiatric indications. The authors of a related study note the general problem with statistical approaches: due to the rarity of suicidal events in clinical trials, it is hard to draw firm conclusions with a sample smaller than two million patients.

Citalopram and escitalopram are associated with dose-dependent QT interval prolongation and should not be used in those with congenital long QT syndrome or known pre-existing QT interval prolongation, or in combination with other medicines that prolong the QT interval. ECG measurements should be considered for patients with cardiac disease, and electrolyte disturbances should be corrected before starting treatment. In December 2011, the UK implemented new restrictions on the maximum daily doses at 20 mg for adults and 10 mg for those older than 65 years or with liver impairment. There are concerns of higher rates of QT prolongation and torsades de pointes compared with other SSRIs. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada did not similarly order restrictions on escitalopram dosage, only on its predecessor citalopram.

Very Common Effects

Very common effects (>10% incidence) include:

  • Headache (24%).
  • Nausea (18%).
  • Ejaculation disorder (9-14%).
  • Somnolence (4-13%).
  • Insomnia (7-12%).

Common Effects

Common effects (1-10% incidence) include:

  • Insomnia.
  • Somnolence (sleepiness).
  • Dizziness.
  • Paraesthesia.
  • Tremor.
  • Decreased or increased appetite.
  • Anxiety.
  • Restlessness.
  • Abnormal dreams.
  • Libido decreased.
  • Anorgasmia.
  • Sinusitis (nasal congestion).
  • Yawning.
  • Diarrhoea.
  • Constipation.
  • Vomiting.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Excessive sweating.
  • Arthralgia (joint pain).
  • Myalgia (muscular aches and pains).
  • Fatigue.
  • Pyrexia (fever).
  • Impotence (erectile dysfunction).

Psychomotor Effects

The most common effect is fatigue or somnolence, particularly in older adults, although patients with pre-existing daytime sleepiness and fatigue may experience paradoxical improvement of these symptoms. Escitalopram has not been shown to affect serial reaction time, logical reasoning, serial subtraction, multitask, or MacWorth clock task performance.

Discontinuation Symptoms

Refer to Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome.

Escitalopram discontinuation, particularly abruptly, may cause certain withdrawal symptoms such as anhedonia (83%), “electric shock” sensations, colloquially called “brain shivers” or “brain zaps” by sufferers. Frequent symptoms in one study were dizziness (44%), muscle tension (44%), chills (44%), confusion or trouble concentrating (40%), amnesia (28%), and crying (28%). Very slow tapering was recommended. There have been spontaneous reports of discontinuation of Lexapro and other SSRIs and SNRIs, especially when abrupt, leading to dysphoric mood, irritability, agitation, anxiety, headache, lethargy, emotional lability, insomnia, and hypomania. Other symptoms such as panic attacks, hostility, aggressiveness, impulsivity, akathisia (psychomotor restlessness), mania, worsening of depression, and suicidal ideation can emerge when the dose is adjusted down.

Sexual Dysfunction

Some people experience persistent sexual side effects after they stop taking SSRIs. This is known as post-SSRI sexual dysfunction (PSSD). Common symptoms include genital anaesthesia, erectile dysfunction, anhedonia, decreased libido, premature ejaculation, vaginal lubrication issues, and nipple insensitivity in women. Rates are unknown, and there is no established treatment.

Pregnancy

Antidepressant exposure (including escitalopram) is associated with shorter duration of pregnancy (by three days), increased risk of preterm delivery (by 55%), lower birth weight (by 75 g), and lower Apgar scores (by <0.4 points). Antidepressant exposure is not associated with an increased risk of spontaneous abortion. There is a tentative association of SSRI use during pregnancy with heart problems in the baby. The advantages of their use during pregnancy may thus outweigh the possible negative effects on the baby.

Overdose

Excessive doses of escitalopram usually cause relatively minor untoward effects, such as agitation and tachycardia. However, dyskinesia, hypertonia, and clonus may occur in some cases. Therapeutic blood levels of escitalopram are usually in the range of 20-80 μg/L but may reach 80-200 μg/L in the elderly, patients with hepatic dysfunction, those who are poor CYP2C19 metabolisers or following acute overdose. Monitoring of the drug in plasma or serum is generally accomplished using chromatographic methods. Chiral techniques are available to distinguish escitalopram from its racemate, citalopram.

Pharmacology

Mechanism of Action

Escitalopram increases intrasynaptic levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin by blocking the reuptake of the neurotransmitter into the presynaptic neuron. Of the SSRIs currently available, escitalopram has the highest selectivity for the serotonin transporter (SERT) compared to the norepinephrine transporter (NET), making the side-effect profile relatively mild in comparison to less-selective SSRIs.

Escitalopram is a substrate of P-glycoprotein and hence P-glycoprotein inhibitors such as verapamil and quinidine may improve its blood brain barrier penetrability. In a preclinical study in rats combining escitalopram with a P-glycoprotein inhibitor, its antidepressant-like effects were enhanced.

Interactions

Escitalopram, similarly to other SSRIs, inhibits CYP2D6 and hence may increase plasma levels of a number of CYP2D6 substrates such as aripiprazole, risperidone, tramadol, codeine, etc. As escitalopram is only a weak inhibitor of CYP2D6, analgesia from tramadol may not be affected. Escitalopram should be taken with caution when using St. John’s wort. Exposure to escitalopram is increased moderately, by about 50%, when it is taken with omeprazole. The authors of this study suggested that this increase is unlikely to be of clinical concern. Caution should be used when taking cough medicine containing dextromethorphan (DXM) as serotonin syndrome has been reported.

Bupropion has been found to significantly increase citalopram plasma concentration and systemic exposure; as of April 2018 the interaction with escitalopram had not been studied, but some monographs warned of the potential interaction.

Escitalopram can also prolong the QT interval and hence it is not recommended in patients that are concurrently on other medications that also have the ability to prolong the QT interval. These drugs include antiarrhythmics, antipsychotics, tricyclic antidepressants, some antihistamines (astemizole, mizolastine) and some antiretrovirals (ritonavir, saquinavir, lopinavir). As an SSRI, escitalopram should generally not be given concurrently with MAOIs.

Chemistry

Escitalopram is the (S)-stereoisomer (left-handed version) of the racemate citalopram, which is responsible for its name: escitalopram. The (R)-stereoisomer (R-citalopram, the right-handed version) is not thought to have useful effects for treating depression.

Society and Culture

Allegations of Illegal Marketing

In 2004, separate civil suits alleging illegal marketing of citalopram and escitalopram for use by children and teenagers by Forest were initiated by two whistleblowers: a physician named Joseph Piacentile and a Forest salesman named Christopher Gobble. In February 2009, the suits were joined. Eleven states and the District of Columbia filed notices of intent to intervene as plaintiffs in the action.

The suits alleged that Forest illegally engaged in off-label promotion of Lexapro for use in children; hid the results of a study showing lack of effectiveness in children; paid kickbacks to physicians to induce them to prescribe Lexapro to children; and conducted so-called “seeding studies” that were, in reality, marketing efforts to promote the drug’s use by doctors. Forest denied the allegations but ultimately agreed to settle with the plaintiffs for over $313 million.

Brand Names

Escitalopram is sold under many brand names worldwide such as Cipralex, Lexapro, Mozarin, Aciprex, Depralin, Ecytara, Elicea, Nexpram, Pramatis, and Betesda.

Can the MHS: A Serve as a Clinically Useful Screening Tool for GAD?

Research Paper Title

A Brief Online and Offline (Paper-and-Pencil) Screening Tool for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: The Final Phase in the Development and Validation of the Mental Health Screening Tool for Anxiety Disorders (MHS: A).

Background

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) can cause significant socioeconomic burden and daily life dysfunction; hence, therapeutic intervention through early detection is important.

Methods

This study was the final stage of a 3-year anxiety screening tool development project that evaluated the psychometric properties and diagnostic screening utility of the Mental Health Screening Tool for Anxiety Disorders (MHS: A), which measures GAD.

Results

A total of 527 Koreans completed online and offline (i.e., paper-and pencil) versions of the MHS: A, Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI), Generalised Anxiety Disorder-7 (GAD-7), and Penn State Worry Questionnaire (PSWQ). The participants had an average age of 38.6 years and included 340 (64.5%) females. Participants were also administered the Mini-International Neuropsychiatric Interview (MINI).

Internal consistency, convergent/criterion validity, item characteristics, and test information were assessed based on the item response theory (IRT), and a factor analysis and cut-off score analyses were conducted. The MHS: A had good internal consistency and good convergent validity with other anxiety scales.

The two versions (online/offline) of the MHS: A were nearly identical (r = 0.908). It had a one-factor structure and showed better diagnostic accuracy (online/offline: sensitivity = 0.98/0.90, specificity = 0.80/0.83) for GAD detection than the GAD-7 and BAI. The IRT analysis indicated that the MHS: A was most informative as a screening tool for GAD.

Conclusions

The MHS: A can serve as a clinically useful screening tool for GAD in Korea. Furthermore, it can be administered both online and offline and can be flexibly used as a brief mental health screener, especially with the current rise in telehealth.

Reference

Kim, S-H., Park, K., Yoon, S., Choi, Y., Lee, S-H. & Choi, K-H. (2021) A Brief Online and Offline (Paper-and-Pencil) Screening Tool for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: The Final Phase in the Development and Validation of the Mental Health Screening Tool for Anxiety Disorders (MHS: A). Frontiers in Psychology. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.639366. eCollection 2021.

What is Avoidant Personality Disorder?

Introduction

Avoidant personality disorder (AvPD) is a Cluster C personality disorder in which the main coping mechanism of those affected is avoidance of feared stimuli.

Those affected display a pattern of severe social anxiety, social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, extreme sensitivity to negative evaluation and rejection, and avoidance of social interaction despite a strong desire for intimacy.

People with AvPD often consider themselves to be socially inept or personally unappealing and avoid social interaction for fear of being ridiculed, humiliated, rejected, or disliked. They often avoid becoming involved with others unless they are certain they will be liked.

Childhood emotional neglect (in particular, the rejection of a child by one or both parents) and peer group rejection are associated with an increased risk for its development; however, it is possible for AvPD to occur without any notable history of abuse or neglect.

Brief History

The avoidant personality has been described in several sources as far back as the early 1900s, although it was not so named for some time. Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler described patients who exhibited signs of avoidant personality disorder in his 1911 work Dementia Praecox: Or the Group of Schizophrenias. Avoidant and schizoid patterns were frequently confused or referred to synonymously until Kretschmer (1921), in providing the first relatively complete description, developed a distinction.

Signs and Symptoms

Avoidant individuals are preoccupied with their own shortcomings and form relationships with others only if they believe they will not be rejected. They often view themselves with contempt, while showing a decreased ability to identify traits within themselves that are generally considered as positive within their societies. Loss and social rejection are so painful that these individuals will choose to be alone rather than risk trying to connect with others.

Some with this disorder fantasize about idealized, accepting and affectionate relationships because of their desire to belong. They often feel themselves unworthy of the relationships they desire, and shame themselves from ever attempting to begin them. If they do manage to form relationships, it is also common for them to pre-emptively abandon them out of fear of the relationship failing.

Individuals with the disorder tend to describe themselves as uneasy, anxious, lonely, unwanted and isolated from others. They often choose jobs of isolation in which they do not have to interact with others regularly. Avoidant individuals also avoid performing activities in public spaces for fear of embarrassing themselves in front of others.

Symptoms include:

  • Extreme shyness or anxiety in social situations, though the person feels a strong desire for close relationships;
  • Heightened attachment-related anxiety, which may include a fear of abandonment; and
  • Substance abuse and/or dependence.

Comorbidity

AvPD is reported to be especially prevalent in people with anxiety disorders, although estimates of comorbidity vary widely due to differences in (among others) diagnostic instruments. Research suggests that approximately 10-50% of people who have panic disorder with agoraphobia have avoidant personality disorder, as well as about 20-40% of people who have social anxiety disorder. In addition to this, AvPD is more prevalent in people who have comorbid social anxiety disorder and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) than in those who have only one of the aforementioned conditions.

Some studies report prevalence rates of up to 45% among people with GAD and up to 56% of those with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Posttraumatic stress disorder is also commonly comorbid with AvPD.

Avoidants are prone to self-loathing and, in certain cases, self-harm. In particular, avoidants who have comorbid PTSD have the highest rates of engagement in self-harming behaviour, outweighing even those with borderline personality disorder (with or without PTSD). Substance use disorders are also common in individuals with AvPD – particularly in regard to alcohol, benzodiazepines and heroin – and may significantly affect a patient’s prognosis.

Earlier theorists proposed a personality disorder with a combination of features from borderline personality disorder and avoidant personality disorder, called “avoidant-borderline mixed personality” (AvPD/BPD).

Causes

Causes of AvPD are not clearly defined, but appear to be influenced by a combination of social, genetic and psychological factors. The disorder may be related to temperamental factors that are inherited.

Specifically, various anxiety disorders in childhood and adolescence have been associated with a temperament characterised by behavioural inhibition, including features of being shy, fearful and withdrawn in new situations. These inherited characteristics may give an individual a genetic predisposition towards AvPD.

Childhood emotional neglect and peer group rejection are both associated with an increased risk for the development of AvPD. Some researchers believe a combination of high-sensory-processing sensitivity coupled with adverse childhood experiences may heighten the risk of an individual developing AvPD.

Subtypes

Millon

Psychologist Theodore Millon notes that because most patients present a mixed picture of symptoms, their personality disorder tends to be a blend of a major personality disorder type with one or

more secondary personality disorder types. He identified four adult subtypes of AvPD as outlined below.

SubtypePersonality Traits/Features
Phobic Avoidant (including dependent features)General apprehensiveness displaced with avoidable tangible precipitant; qualms and disquietude symbolised by a repugnant and specific dreadful object or circumstances.
Conflicted Avoidant (including negativistic features)Internal discord and dissension; fears dependence; unsettled; unreconciled within self; hesitating, confused, tormented, paroxysmic, embittered; and unresolvable angst.
Hypersensitive Avoidant (including paranoid features)Intensely wary and suspicious; alternatively panicky, terrified, edgy, and timorous, then thin-skinned, high-strung, petulant, and prickly.
Self-Deserting Avoidant (including depressive features)Blocks or fragments self-awareness; discards painful images and memories; casts away untenable thoughts and impulses; ultimately jettisons self (suicidal).

Others

In 1993, Lynn E. Alden and Martha J. Capreol proposed two other subtypes of avoidant personality disorder, as outlined below.

SubtypePersonality Traits/Features
Cold-AvoidantCharacterised by an inability to experience and express positive emotion towards others.
Exploitable-AvoidantCharacterised by an inability to express anger towards others or to resist coercion from others. May be at risk for abuse by others.

Diagnosis

ICD

The World Health Organisation’s ICD-10 lists avoidant personality disorder as anxious (avoidant) personality disorder (F60.6).

It is characterised by the presence of at least four of the following:

  1. Persistent and pervasive feelings of tension and apprehension.
  2. Belief that one is socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others.
  3. Excessive preoccupation with being criticised or rejected in social situations.
  4. Unwillingness to become involved with people unless certain of being liked.
  5. Restrictions in lifestyle because of need to have physical security.
  6. Avoidance of social or occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact because of fear of criticism, disapproval, or rejection.

Associated features may include hypersensitivity to rejection and criticism.

It is a requirement of ICD-10 that all personality disorder diagnoses also satisfy a set of general personality disorder criteria.

DSM

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the APA also has an avoidant personality disorder diagnosis (301.82). It refers to a widespread pattern of inhibition around people, feeling inadequate and being very sensitive to negative evaluation. Symptoms begin by early adulthood and occur in a range of situations.

Four of the following seven specific symptoms should be present:

  1. Avoids occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact, because of fears of criticism, disapproval, or rejection.
  2. Is unwilling to get involved with people unless certain of being liked.
  3. Shows restraint within intimate relationships because of the fear of being shamed or ridiculed.
  4. Is preoccupied with being criticised or rejected in social situations.
  5. Is inhibited in new interpersonal situations because of feelings of inadequacy.
  6. Views self as socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others.
  7. Is unusually reluctant to take personal risk or to engage in any new activities because they may prove embarrassing.

Differential Diagnosis

In contrast to social anxiety disorder, a diagnosis of AvPD also requires that the general criteria for a personality disorder are met.

According to the DSM-5, avoidant personality disorder must be differentiated from similar personality disorders such as dependent, paranoid, schizoid, and schizotypal. But these can also occur together; this is particularly likely for AvPD and dependent personality disorder. Thus, if criteria for more than one personality disorder are met, all can be diagnosed.

There is also an overlap between avoidant and schizoid personality traits and AvPD may have a relationship to the schizophrenia spectrum.

Epidemiology

Data from the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions indicates a prevalence of 2.36% in the US general population. It appears to occur with equal frequency in males and females. In one study, it was seen in 14.7% of psychiatric outpatients.

Criticism

There is controversy as to whether avoidant personality disorder (AvPD) is distinct from generalised social anxiety disorder. Both have similar diagnostic criteria and may share a similar causation, subjective experience, course, treatment and identical underlying personality features, such as shyness.

It is contended by some that they are merely different conceptualisations of the same disorder, where avoidant personality disorder may represent the more severe form. In particular, those with AvPD experience not only more severe social phobia symptoms, but are also more depressed and more functionally impaired than patients with generalised social phobia alone. But they show no differences in social skills or performance on an impromptu speech. Another difference is that social phobia is the fear of social circumstances whereas AvPD is better described as an aversion to intimacy in relationships.

Treatment

Treatment of avoidant personality disorder can employ various techniques, such as social skills training, psychotherapy, cognitive therapy, and exposure treatment to gradually increase social contacts, group therapy for practicing social skills, and sometimes drug therapy.

A key issue in treatment is gaining and keeping the patient’s trust since people with an avoidant personality disorder will often start to avoid treatment sessions if they distrust the therapist or fear rejection. The primary purpose of both individual therapy and social skills group training is for individuals with an avoidant personality disorder to begin challenging their exaggerated negative beliefs about themselves.

Significant improvement in the symptoms of personality disorders is possible, with the help of treatment and individual effort.

Prognosis

Being a personality disorder, which is usually chronic and has long-lasting mental conditions, an avoidant personality disorder is not expected to improve with time without treatment. Given that it is a poorly studied personality disorder and in light of prevalence rates, societal costs, and the current state of research, AvPD qualifies as a neglected disorder.

PHQ-9 & GAD-7 Data in a National Survey about COVID-19 Restrictions in Australia

Research paper Title

Patient Health Questionnaire 9 (PHQ-9) and General Anxiety Disorder 7 (GAD-7) data contributed by 13,829 respondents to a national survey about COVID-19 restrictions in Australia.

Background

While the Patient Health Questionnaire 9 (PHQ-9) and General Anxiety Disorder 7 (GAD-7) are frequently used in mental health research, few studies have reported comprehensive data on these measures from population or community samples.

The aim of this study was to describe gender- and age-specific PHQ-9 and GAD-7 item and summary data contributed by those who completed this survey.

Methods

The PHQ-9 and GAD-7 were used as indicators of symptoms of depression and anxiety in a national online anonymous survey to assess the mental health of adults in Australia during the COVID-19 restrictions.

Data were analysed descriptively.

Results

Complete survey responses were contributed by 13,829 people.

For both measures, item-by-item results, summary statistics (mean, standard deviation, minimum, maximum, median and interquartile range) and prevalence of severity categories are reported for the whole sample, and disaggregated by gender and age groups.

Conclusions

These comprehensive data provide a useful point of comparison for future COVID-19-related or other research among population or community samples.

Other researchers are encouraged to report detailed PHQ-9 and GAD-7 data in the future, to enable and promote relevant between-group comparisons.

Reference

Stocker, R., Tran, T., Hammarberg, K., Nguyen, H., Rowe, H. & Fisher, J. (2021) Patient Health Questionnaire 9 (PHQ-9) and General Anxiety Disorder 7 (GAD-7) data contributed by 13,829 respondents to a national survey about COVID-19 restrictions in Australia. Psychiatry Research. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2021.113792. Online ahead of print.

What is Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)?

Introduction

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is an anxiety disorder characterised by excessive, uncontrollable and often irrational worry about events or activities. Worry often interferes with daily functioning, and sufferers are overly concerned about everyday matters such as health, finances, death, family, relationship concerns, or work difficulties. Symptoms may include excessive worry, restlessness, trouble sleeping, exhaustion, irritability, sweating, and trembling.

Symptoms must be consistent and ongoing, persisting at least six months, for a formal diagnosis of GAD. Individuals with GAD often suffer from other disorders including other psychiatric disorders (e.g. major depressive disorder), substance use disorder, obesity, and may have a history of trauma or family with GAD. Clinicians use screening tools such as the GAD-7 and GAD-2 questionnaires to determine if individuals may have GAD and warrant formal evaluation for the disorder. Additionally, sometimes screening tools may enable clinicians to evaluate the severity of GAD symptoms.

GAD is believed to have a hereditary or genetic basis (e.g. first-degree relatives of an individual who has GAD are themselves more likely to have GAD) but the exact nature of this relationship is not fully appreciated. Genetic studies of individuals who have anxiety disorders (including GAD) suggest that the hereditary contribution to developing anxiety disorders is only approximately 30-40%, which suggests that environmental factors may be more important to determining whether an individual develops GAD.

The pathophysiology of GAD implicates several regions of the brain that mediate the processing of stimuli associated with fear, anxiety, memory, and emotion (i.e. the amygdala, insula and the frontal cortex). It has been suggested that individuals with GAD have greater amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) activity in response to stimuli than individuals who do not have GAD. However, the relationship between GAD and activity levels in other parts of the frontal cortex is the subject of ongoing research with some literature suggesting greater activation in specific regions for individuals who have GAD but where other research suggests decreased activation levels in individuals who have GAD as compared to individuals who do not have GAD.

Traditional treatment modalities include variations on psychotherapy (e.g. cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)) and pharmacological intervention (e.g. citalopram, escitalopram, sertraline, duloxetine, and venlafaxine). CBT and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the respectively predominant psychological and pharmacological treatment modalities; other treatments (e.g. selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)) are often considered depending on individual response to therapy. Areas of active investigation include the usefulness of complementary and alternative medications (CAMs), exercise, therapeutic massage and other interventions that have been proposed for study.

Estimates regarding prevalence of GAD or lifetime risk (i.e. lifetime morbid risk (LMR)) for GAD vary depending upon which criteria are used for diagnosing GAD (e.g. DSM-5 vs ICD-10) although estimates do not vary widely between diagnostic criteria. In general, ICD-10 is more inclusive than DSM-5, so estimates regarding prevalence and lifetime risk tend to be greater using ICD-10. In regard to prevalence, in a given year, about two (2%) percent of adults in the United States and Europe have been suggested to suffer GAD. However, the risk of developing GAD at any point in life has been estimated at 9.0%. Although it is possible to experience a single episode of GAD during one’s life, most people who experience GAD experience it repeatedly over the course of their lives as a chronic or ongoing condition. GAD is diagnosed twice as frequently in women as in men.

Diagnosis

DSM-5 Criteria

The diagnostic criteria for GAD as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) (2013), published by the American Psychiatric Association, are paraphrased as follows:

  1. “Excessive anxiety or worry” experienced most days over at least six (6) month and which involve a plurality of concerns.
  2. Inability to manage worry.
  3. At least three (3) of the following occur:
    • Restlessness.
    • Fatigability.
    • Problems concentrating.
    • Irritability.
    • Muscle tension.
    • Difficulty with sleep.
    • Note that in children, only one (1) of the above items is required.
  4. One experiences significant distress in functioning (e.g. work, school, social life).
  5. Symptoms are not due to drug abuse, prescription medication or other medical condition(s).
  6. Symptoms do not fit better with another psychiatric condition such as panic disorder.

No major changes to GAD have occurred since publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2004); minor changes include wording of diagnostic criteria.

ICD-10 Criteria

The 10th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Disease (ICD-10) provides a different set of diagnostic criteria for GAD than the DSM-5 criteria described above. In particular, ICD-10 allows diagnosis of GAD as follows:

  • A period of at least six months with prominent tension, worry, and feelings of apprehension, about everyday events and problems.
  • At least four symptoms out of the following list of items must be present, of which at least one from items (1) to (4).
    • Autonomic arousal symptoms:
      • (1) Palpitations or pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate.
      • (2) Sweating.
      • (3) Trembling or shaking.
      • (4) Dry mouth (not due to medication or dehydration).
    • Symptoms concerning chest and abdomen:
      • (5) Difficulty breathing.
      • (6) Feeling of choking.
      • (7) Chest pain or discomfort.
      • (8) Nausea or abdominal distress (e.g. churning in the stomach).
    • Symptoms concerning brain and mind:
      • (9) Feeling dizzy, unsteady, faint or light-headed.
      • (10) Feelings that objects are unreal (derealization), or that one’s self is distant or “not really here” (depersonalization).
      • (11) Fear of losing control, going crazy, or passing out.
      • (12) Fear of dying.
    • General symptoms:
      • (13) Hot flashes or cold chills.
      • (14) Numbness or tingling sensations.
    • Symptoms of tension:
      • (15) Muscle tension or aches and pains.
      • (16) Restlessness and inability to relax.
      • (17) Feeling keyed up, or on edge, or of mental tension.
      • (18) A sensation of a lump in the throat or difficulty with swallowing.
    • Other non-specific symptoms:
      • (19) Exaggerated response to minor surprises or being startled.
      • (20) Difficulty in concentrating or mind going blank, because of worrying or anxiety.
      • (21) Persistent irritability.
      • (22) Difficulty getting to sleep because of worrying.
  • The disorder does not meet the criteria for panic disorder (F41.0), phobic anxiety disorders (F40.-), obsessive-compulsive disorder (F42.-) or hypochondriacal disorder (F45.2).
  • Most commonly used exclusion criteria: not sustained by a physical disorder, such as hyperthyroidism, an organic mental disorder (F0) or psychoactive substance-related disorder (F1), such as excess consumption of amphetamine-like substances, or withdrawal from benzodiazepines.[21]

See ICD-10 F41.1

Note: For children different ICD-10 criteria may be applied for diagnosing GAD (see F93.80).

History of Diagnostic Criteria

The American Psychiatric Association introduced GAD as a diagnosis in the DSM-III in 1980, when anxiety neurosis was split into GAD and panic disorder. The definition in the DSM-III required uncontrollable and diffuse anxiety or worry that is excessive and unrealistic and persists for 1 month or longer. High rates in comorbidity of GAD and major depression led many commentators to suggest that GAD would be better conceptualised as an aspect of major depression instead of an independent disorder. Many critics stated that the diagnostic features of this disorder were not well established until the DSM-III-R. Since comorbidity of GAD and other disorders decreased with time, the DSM-III-R changed the time requirement for a GAD diagnosis to 6 months or longer. The DSM-IV changed the definition of excessive worry and the number of associated psychophysiological symptoms required for a diagnosis. Another aspect of the diagnosis the DSM-IV clarified was what constitutes a symptom as occurring “often”. The DSM-IV also required difficulty controlling the worry to be diagnosed with GAD. The DSM-5 emphasized that excessive worrying had to occur more days than not and on a number of different topics. It has been stated that the constant changes in the diagnostic features of the disorder have made assessing epidemiological statistics such as prevalence and incidence difficult, as well as increasing the difficulty for researchers in identifying the biological and psychological underpinnings of the disorder. Consequently, making specialized medications for the disorder is more difficult as well. This has led to the continuation of GAD being medicated heavily with SSRIs.

Risk Factors

Genetics, Family and Environment

The relationship between genetics and anxiety disorders is an ongoing area of research. It is broadly understood that there exists an hereditary basis for GAD, but the exact nature of this hereditary basis is not fully appreciated. While investigators have identified several genetic loci that are regions of interest for further study, there is no singular gene or set of genes that have been identified as causing GAD. Nevertheless, genetic factors may play a role in determining whether an individual is at greater risk for developing GAD, structural changes in the brain related to GAD, or whether an individual is more or less likely to respond to a particular treatment modality. Genetic factors that may play a role in development of GAD are usually discussed in view of environmental factors (e.g. life experience or ongoing stress) that might also play a role in development of GAD. The traditional methods of investigating the possible hereditary basis of GAD include using family studies and twin studies (there are no known adoption studies of individuals who suffer anxiety disorders, including GAD). Meta-analysis of family and twin studies suggests that there is strong evidence of a hereditary basis for GAD in that GAD is more likely to occur in first-degree relatives of individuals who have GAD than in non-related individuals in the same population. Twin studies also suggest that there may be a genetic linkage between GAD and major depressive disorder (MDD), which may explain the common occurrence of MDD in individuals who suffer GAD (e.g. comorbidity of MDD in individuals with GAD has been estimated at approximately 60%). When GAD is considered among all anxiety disorders (e.g. panic disorder, social anxiety disorder), genetic studies suggest that hereditary contribution to the development of anxiety disorders amounts to only approximately 30-40%, which suggests that environmental factors are likely more important to determining whether an individual may develop GAD. In regard to environmental influences in the development of GAD, it has been suggested that parenting behaviour may be an important influence since parents potentially model anxiety-related behaviours. It has also been suggested that individuals who suffer GAD have experienced a greater number of minor stress-related events in life and that the number of stress-related events may be important in development of GAD (irrespective of other individual characteristics).

Studies of possible genetic contributions to the development of GAD have examined relationships between genes implicated in brain structures involved in identifying potential threats (e.g. in the amygdala) and also implicated in neurotransmitters and neurotransmitter receptors known to be involved in anxiety disorders. More specifically, genes studied for their relationship to development of GAD or demonstrated to have had a relationship to treatment response include:

  • PACAP (A54G polymorphism): remission after 6 month treatment with Venlafaxine suggested to have a significant relationship with the A54G polymorphism (Cooper et al. (2013)).
  • HTR2A gene (rs7997012 SNP G allele): HTR2A allele suggested to be implicated in a significant decrease in anxiety symptoms associated with response to 6 months of Venlafaxine treatment (Lohoff et al. (2013)).
  • SLC6A4 promoter region (5-HTTLPR): Serotonin transporter gene suggested to be implicated in significant reduction in anxiety symptoms in response to 6 months of Venlafaxine treatment (Lohoff et al. (2013)).

Pathophysiology

The pathophysiology of GAD is an active and ongoing area of research often involving the intersection of genetics and neurological structures. GAD has been linked to changes in functional connectivity of the amygdala and its processing of fear and anxiety. Sensory information enters the amygdala through the nuclei of the basolateral complex (consisting of lateral, basal and accessory basal nuclei). The basolateral complex processes the sensory-related fear memories and communicates information regarding threat importance to memory and sensory processing elsewhere in the brain, such as the medial prefrontal cortex and sensory cortices. Neurological structures traditionally appreciated for their roles in anxiety include the amygdala, insula and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). It is broadly postulated that changes in one or more of these neurological structures are believed to allow greater amygdala response to emotional stimuli in individuals who have GAD as compared to individuals who do not have GAD.

Individuals who GAD have been suggested to have greater amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) activation in response to stimuli than individuals who do not have GAD. However, the exact relationship between the amygdala and the frontal cortex (e.g. prefrontal cortex or the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC)) is not fully understood because there are studies that suggest increased or decreased activity in the frontal cortex in individuals who have GAD. Consequently, because of the tenuous understanding of the frontal cortex as it relates to the amygdala in individuals who have GAD, it’s an open question as to whether individuals who have GAD bear an amygdala that is more sensitive than an amygdala in an individual without GAD or whether frontal cortex hyperactivity is responsible for changes in amygdala responsiveness to various stimuli. Recent studies have attempted to identify specific regions of the frontal cortex (e.g. dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC)) that may be more or less reactive in individuals who have GAD or specific networks that may be differentially implicated in individuals who have GAD. Other lines of study investigate whether activation patterns vary in individuals who have GAD at different ages with respect to individuals who do not have GAD at the same age (e.g. amygdala activation in adolescents with GAD).

Treatment

Traditional treatment modalities broadly fall into two (2) categories:

  • Psychotherapeutic; and
  • Pharmacological intervention.

In addition to these two conventional therapeutic approaches, areas of active investigation include complementary and alternative medications (CAMs), brain stimulation, exercise, therapeutic massage and other interventions that have been proposed for further study. Treatment modalities can, and often are utilised concurrently so that an individual may pursue psychological therapy (i.e. psychotherapy) and pharmacological therapy. Both cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medications (such as SSRIs) have been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety. A combination of both CBT and medication is generally seen as the most desirable approach to treatment. Use of medication to lower extreme anxiety levels can be important in enabling patients to engage effectively in CBT.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapeutic interventions include a plurality of therapy types that vary based upon their specific methodologies for enabling individuals to gain insight into the working of the conscious and subconscious mind and which sometimes focus on the relationship between cognition and behaviour. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is widely regarded as the first-line psychological therapy for treating GAD. Additionally, many of these psychological interventions may be delivered in an individual or group therapy setting. While individual and group settings are broadly both considered effective for treating GAD, individual therapy tends to promote longer-lasting engagement in therapy (i.e. lower attrition over time).

Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy is a type of therapy premised upon Freudian psychology in which a psychologist enables an individual explore various elements in their subconscious mind to resolve conflicts that may exist between the conscious and subconscious elements of the mind. In the context of GAD, the psychodynamic theory of anxiety suggests that the unconscious mind engages in worry as a defence mechanism to avoid feelings of anger or hostility because such feelings might cause social isolation or other negative attribution toward oneself. Accordingly, the various psychodynamic therapies attempt to explore the nature of worry as it functions in GAD in order to enable individuals to alter the subconscious practice of using worry as a defence mechanism and to thereby diminish GAD symptoms. Variations of psychotherapy include a near-term version of therapy, “short-term anxiety-provoking psychotherapy (STAPP).

Behavioural Therapy

Behavioural therapy is therapeutic intervention premised upon the concept that anxiety is learned through classical conditioning (e.g., in view of one or more negative experiences) and maintained through operant conditioning (e.g. one finds that by avoiding a feared experience that one avoids anxiety). Thus, behavioural therapy enables an individual to re-learn conditioned responses (behaviours) and to thereby challenge behaviours that have become conditioned responses to fear and anxiety, and which have previously given rise to further maladaptive behaviours.

Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy (CT) is premised upon the idea that anxiety is the result of maladaptive beliefs and methods of thinking. Thus, CT involves assisting individuals to identify more rational ways of thinking and to replace maladaptive thinking patterns (i.e. cognitive distortions) with healthier thinking patterns (e.g. replacing the cognitive distortion of catastrophising with a more productive pattern of thinking). Individuals in CT learn how to identify objective evidence, test hypotheses, and ultimately identify maladaptive thinking patterns so that these patterns can be challenged and replaced.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a behavioural treatment based on acceptance-based models. ACT is designed with the purpose to target three therapeutic goals:

  1. Reduce the use of avoiding strategies intended to avoid feelings, thoughts, memories, and sensations;
  2. Decreasing a person’s literal response to their thoughts (e.g., understanding that thinking “I’m hopeless” does not mean that the person’s life is truly hopeless); and
  3. Increasing the person’s ability to keep commitments to changing their behaviours.

These goals are attained by switching the person’s attempt to control events to working towards changing their behaviour and focusing on valued directions and goals in their lives as well as committing to behaviours that help the individual accomplish those personal goals. This psychological therapy teaches mindfulness (paying attention on purpose, in the present, and in a non-judgemental manner) and acceptance (openness and willingness to sustain contact) skills for responding to uncontrollable events and therefore manifesting behaviours that enact personal values. Like many other psychological therapies, ACT works best in combination with pharmacology treatments.

Intolerance of Uncertainty Therapy

Intolerance of uncertainty (IU) refers to a consistent negative reaction to uncertain and ambiguous events regardless of their likelihood of occurrence. Intolerance of uncertainty therapy (IUT) is used as a stand-alone treatment for GAD patients. Thus, IUT focuses on helping patients in developing the ability to tolerate, cope with and accept uncertainty in their life in order to reduce anxiety. IUT is based on the psychological components of psychoeducation, awareness of worry, problem-solving training, re-evaluation of the usefulness of worry, imagining virtual exposure, recognition of uncertainty, and behavioural exposure. Studies have shown support for the efficacy of this therapy with GAD patients with continued improvements in follow-up periods.

Motivational Interviewing

A promising innovative approach to improving recovery rates for the treatment of GAD is to combine CBT with motivational interviewing (MI). Motivational interviewing is a strategy centred on the patient that aims to increase intrinsic motivation and decrease ambivalence about change due to the treatment. MI contains four key elements:

  • Express empathy;
  • Heighten dissonance between behaviours that are not desired and values that are not consistent with those behaviours;
  • Move with resistance rather than direct confrontation; and
  • Encourage self-efficacy.

It is based on asking open-ended questions and listening carefully and reflectively to patients’ answers, eliciting “change talk”, and talking with patients about the pros and cons of change. Some studies have shown the combination of CBT with MI to be more effective than CBT alone.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based type of psychotherapy that demonstrates efficacy in treating GAD and which integrates the cognitive and behavioural therapeutic approaches. The objective of CBT is to enable individuals to identify irrational thoughts that cause anxiety and to challenge dysfunctional thinking patterns by engaging in awareness techniques such as hypothesis testing and journaling. Because CBT involves the practice of worry and anxiety management, CBT includes a plurality of intervention techniques that enable individuals to explore worry, anxiety and automatic negative thinking patterns. These interventions include anxiety management training, cognitive restructuring, progressive relaxation, situational exposure and self-controlled desensitisation.

Other forms of psychological therapy include:

  • Relaxation techniques (e.g. relaxing imagery, meditational relaxation).
  • Metacognitive Therapy (MCT):
    • The objective of MCT is to alter thinking patterns regarding worry so that worry is no longer used as a coping strategy.
  • Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR).
  • Mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
  • Supportive therapy:
    • This is a Rogerian method of therapy in which subjects experience empathy and acceptance from their therapist to facilitate increasing awareness.
    • Variations of active supportive therapy include Gestalt therapy, Transactional analysis and Counselling.

Pharmacotherapy

Historically, benzodiazepines (BZs) were used prominently to treat anxiety starting in the 1970s but support for this use attenuated in view of the risk for dependence and tolerance to the medication. BZs can have a plurality of effects that made them a seemingly desirable option for treating anxiety – i.e. BZs have anxiolytic, hypnotic (induce sleep), myorelaxant (relax muscles), anticonvulsant and amnestic (impair short-term memory) properties. While BZs are well appreciated for their ability to alleviate anxiety (i.e. their anxiolytic properties) shortly after administration, they are also known for their ability to promote dependence and are frequently abused. Current recommendations for using BZs to treat anxiety in GAD allow no more than 2-4 weeks of BZ exposure. Antidepressants (e.g. SSRIs/SNRIs) have become a mainstay in treating GAD in adults. First-line mediations from any drug category often include drugs that have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating GAD because these medications have been proven safe and effective for treating GAD.

FDA-Approved Medications for Treating GAD

FDA-approved medications for treating GAD include:

  • SSRIs:
    • Paroxetine.
    • Escitalopram.
  • SNRIs:
    • Venlafaxine.
    • Duloxetine.
  • Benzodiazepines (BZs):
    • Alprazolam: Alprazolam is the only FDA-approved BZ for treating GAD.
  • Azapirones:
    • Buspirone.

Non-FDA Approved Medications

While certain medications are not specifically FDA approved for treatment of GAD, there are a number of medications that historically have been used or studied for treating GAD. Other medications that have been used or evaluated for treating GAD include:

  • SSRIs (antidepressants):
    • Citalopram.
    • Fluoxetine.
    • Sertraline.
    • Fluvoxamine (SSRI).
  • Benzodiazepines:
    • Clonazepam.
    • Lorazepam.
    • Diazepam.
  • GABA analogs:
    • Pregabalin (atypical anxiolytic, GABA analog).
    • Tiagabine.
  • Second-generation antipsychotics (SGAs):
    • Olanzapine (evidence of effectiveness is merely a trend).
    • Ziprasidone.
    • Risperidone.
    • Aripiprazole (studied as an adjunctive measure in concert with other treatment).
    • Quetiapine (atypical antipsychotic studied as an adjunctive measure in adults and geriatric patients).
  • Antihistamines:
    • Hydroxyzine (H1 receptor antagonist).
  • Vilazodone (atypical antidepressant).
  • Agomelatine (antidepressant, MT1/2 receptor agonist, 5HT2c antagonist).
  • Clonidine (noted to cause decreased blood pressure and other AEs).
  • Guanfacine (a2A receptor agonist, studied in paediatric patients with GAD).
  • Mirtazapine (atypical antidepressant having 5HT2A and 5HT2c receptor affinity).
  • Vortioxetine (multimodal antidepressant).
  • Eszopiclone (non-benzodiazepine hypnotic).
  • Tricyclic antidepressants:
    • Amitriptyline.
    • Clomipramine.
    • Doxepin.
    • Imipramine.
    • Trimipramine.
    • Desipramine.
    • Nortriptyline.
    • Protriptyline.
  • Opipramol (atypical TCA).]
  • Trazodone.
  • Monamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs):
    • Tranylcypromine.
    • Phenelzine.
  • Homeopathic preparations (discussed below, see complementary and alternative medications (CAMs))

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors

Pharmaceutical treatments for GAD include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).[50] SSRIs increase serotonin levels through inhibition of serotonin reuptake receptors.

FDA approved SSRIs used for this purpose include escitalopram and paroxetine. However, guidelines suggest using sertraline first due to its cost-effectiveness compared to other SSRIs used for GAD and a lower risk of withdrawal compared to SNRIs. If sertraline is found to be ineffective, then it is recommended to try another SSRI or SNRI.

Common side effects include nausea, sexual dysfunction, headache, diarrhoea, constipation, restlessness, increased risk of suicide in young adults and adolescents, among others. Sexual side effects, weight gain, and higher risk of withdrawal are more common in paroxetine than escitalopram and sertraline. In older populations or those taking concomitant medications that increase risk of bleeding, SSRIs may further increase the risk of bleeding. Overdose of an SSRI or concomitant use with another agent that causes increased levels of serotonin can result in serotonin syndrome, which can be life-threatening.

Serotonin Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors

First line pharmaceutical treatments for GAD also include serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). These inhibit the reuptake of serotonin and noradrenaline to increase their levels in the CNS.

FDA approved SNRIs used for this purpose include duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor). While SNRIs have similar efficacy as SSRIs, many psychiatrists prefer to use SSRIs first in the treatment of GAD The slightly higher preference for SSRIs over SNRIs as a first choice for treatment of anxiety disorders may have been influenced by the observation of poorer tolerability of the SNRIs in comparison to SSRIs in systematic reviews of studies of depressed patients.

Side effects common to both SNRIs include anxiety, restlessness, nausea, weight loss, insomnia, dizziness, drowsiness, sweating, dry mouth, sexual dysfunction and weakness. In comparison to SSRIs, the SNRIs have a higher prevalence of the side effects of insomnia, dry mouth, nausea and high blood pressure. Both SNRIs have the potential for discontinuation syndrome after abrupt cessation, which can precipitate symptoms including motor disturbances and anxiety and may require tapering. Like other serotonergic agents, SNRIs have the potential to cause serotonin syndrome, a potentially fatal systemic response to serotonergic excess that causes symptoms including agitation, restlessness, confusion, tachycardia, hypertension, mydriasis, ataxia, myoclonus, muscle rigidity, diaphoresis, diarrhoea, headache, shivering, goose bumps, high fever, seizures, arrhythmia and unconsciousness. SNRIs like SSRIs carry a black box warning for suicidal ideation, but it is generally considered that the risk of suicide in untreated depression is far higher than the risk of suicide when depression is properly treated.

Pregabalin and Gabapentin

Pregabalin (Lyrica) acts on the voltage-dependent calcium channel to decrease the release of neurotransmitters such as glutamate, norepinephrine and substance P. Its therapeutic effect appears after 1 week of use and is similar in effectiveness to lorazepam, alprazolam and venlafaxine but pregabalin has demonstrated superiority by producing more consistent therapeutic effects for psychic and somatic anxiety symptoms. Long-term trials have shown continued effectiveness without the development of tolerance and additionally, unlike benzodiazepines, it does not disrupt sleep architecture and produces less severe cognitive and psychomotor impairment. It also has a low potential for abuse and dependency and may be preferred over the benzodiazepines for these reasons. The anxiolytic effects of pregabalin appear to persist for at least six months continuous use, suggesting tolerance is less of a concern; this gives pregabalin an advantage over certain anxiolytic medications such as benzodiazepines.

Gabapentin (Neurontin), a closely related medication to pregabalin with the same mechanism of action, has also demonstrated effectiveness in the treatment of GAD, though unlike pregabalin, it has not been approved specifically for this indication. Nonetheless, it is likely to be of similar usefulness in the management of this condition, and by virtue of being off-patent, it has the advantage of being significantly less expensive in comparison. In accordance, gabapentin is frequently prescribed off-label to treat GAD.

Complementary and Alternative Medicines Studied for Potential in Treating GAD

Complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) are widely used by individuals who suffer GAD despite having no evidence or varied evidence regarding efficacy. Efficacy trials for CAM medications often suffer from various types of bias and low quality reporting in regard to safety. In regard to efficacy, critics point out that CAM trials sometimes predicate claims of efficacy based on a comparison of a CAM against a known drug after which no difference in subjects is found by investigators and which is used to suggest an equivalence between a CAM and a drug. Because this equates a lack of evidence with the positive assertion of efficacy, a “lack of difference” assertion is not a proper claim for efficacy. Moreover, an absence of strict definitions and standards for CAM compounds further burdens the literature regarding CAM efficacy in treating GAD. CAMs academically studied for their potential in treating GAD or GAD symptoms along with a summary of academic findings are given below. What follows is a summary of academic findings. Accordingly, none of the following should be taken as offering medical guidance or an opinion as to the safety or efficacy of any of the following CAMs.

  • Kava Kava (Piper methysticum) extracts:
    • Meta analysis does not suggest efficacy of Kava Kava extracts due to few data available yielding inconclusive results or non-statistically significant results.
    • Nearly a quarter (25.8%) of subjects experienced adverse effects (AEs) from Kava Kava extracts during six (6) trials.
    • Kava Kava may cause liver toxicity.
  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) extracts:
    • Small and varied studies may suggest some level of efficacy as compared to placebo or other medication; claims of efficacy are regarded as needing further evaluation.
    • Silexan is an oil derivative of Lavender studied in paediatric patients with GAD.
    • Concern exists regarding the question as to whether Silexan may cause unopposed oestrogen exposure in boys due to disruption of steroid signalling.
  • Galphimia glauca extracts:
    • While Galphima glauca extracts have been the subject of two (2) randomised controlled trials (RCTs) comparing Galphima glauca extracts to lorazepam, efficacy claims are regarded as “highly uncertain.”
  • Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) extracts:
    • Poor quality trials have trends that may suggest efficacy but further study is needed to establish any claim of efficacy.
  • Crataegus oxycantha and Eschscholtzia californica extracts combined with magnesium:
    • A single12-week trial of Crataegus oxycantha and Eschscholtzia californica compared to placebo has been used to suggest efficacy.
    • However, efficacy claims require confirmation studies.
    • For the minority of subjects who experienced AEs from extracts, most AEs implicated gastrointestinal tract (GIT) intolerance.
  • Echium amoneum extract:
    • A single, small trial used this extract as a supplement to fluoxetine (vs using a placebo to supplement fluoxetine); larger studies are needed to substantiate efficacy claims.
  • Gamisoyo-San:
    • Small trials of this herbal mixture compared to placebo have suggested no efficacy of the herbal mixture over placebo but further study is necessary to allow definitive conclusion of a lack of efficacy.
  • Passiflora incarnata extract:
    • Claims of efficacy or benzodiazepam equivalence are regarded as “highly uncertain.”
  • Valeriana extract:
    • A single 4-week trial suggests no effect of Valeriana extract on GAD but is regarded as “uninformative” on the topic of efficacy in view of its finding that the benzodiazepine diazepam also had no effect.
    • Further study may be warranted.

Other Possible Modalities Discussed in Literature for Potential in Treating GAD

Other modalities that have been academically studied for their potential in treating GAD or symptoms of GAD are summarised below. What follows is a summary of academic findings. Accordingly, none of the following should be taken as offering medical guidance or an opinion as to the safety or efficacy of any of the following modalities.

  • Acupuncture:
    • A single, very small trial revealed a trend toward efficacy but flaws in the trial design suggest uncertainty regarding efficacy.
  • Balneotherapy:
    • Data from a single non-blinded study suggested possible efficacy of balneotherapy as compared to paroxetine.
    • However, efficacy claims need confirmation.
  • Therapeutic massage:
    • A single, small, possibly biased study revealed inconclusive results.
  • Resistance and aerobic exercise:
    • When compared to no treatment, a single, small, potentially unrepresentative trial suggested a trend toward GAD remission and reduction of worry.
  • Chinese bloodletting:
    • When added to paroxetine, a single, small, imprecise trial that lacked a sham procedure for comparison suggested efficacy at 4-weeks.
    • However, larger trials are needed to evaluate this technique as compared to a sham procedure.
  • Floating in water:
    • When compared to no treatment, a single, imprecise, non-blinded trial suggested a trend toward efficacy (findings were statistically insignificant).
  • Swedish massage:
    • When compared to a sham procedure, a single trial showed a trend toward efficacy (i.e. findings were statistically insignificant).
  • Ayurvedic medications:
    • A single non-blinded trial was inconclusive as to whether Ayurvedic medications were effective in treating GAD.
  • Multi-faith spiritually-based intervention:
    • A single, small, non-blinded study was inconclusive regarding efficacy.

Lifestyle

Lifestyle factors including: stress management, stress reduction, relaxation, exercise, sleep hygiene, and caffeine and alcohol reduction can influence anxiety levels. Physical activity has shown to have a positive impact whereas low physical activity may be a risk factor for anxiety disorders.

Substances and Anxiety in GAD

While there are no substances that are known to cause GAD, certain substances or the withdrawal from certain substances have been implicated in promoting the experience of anxiety. For example, even while benzodiazepines may afford individuals with GAD relief from anxiety, withdrawal from benzodiazepines is associated with the experience of anxiety among other adverse events like sweating and tremor.

Tobacco withdrawal symptoms may provoke anxiety in smokers and excessive caffeine use has been linked to aggravating and maintaining anxiety.

Comorbidity

Depression

In the National Comorbidity Survey (2005), 58% of patients diagnosed with major depression were found to have an anxiety disorder; among these patients, the rate of comorbidity with GAD was 17.2%, and with panic disorder, 9.9%. Patients with a diagnosed anxiety disorder also had high rates of comorbid depression, including 22.4% of patients with social phobia, 9.4% with agoraphobia, and 2.3% with panic disorder. A longitudinal cohort study found 12% of the 972 participants had GAD comorbid with MDD. Accumulating evidence indicates that patients with comorbid depression and anxiety tend to have greater illness severity and a lower treatment response than those with either disorder alone. In addition, social function and quality of life are more greatly impaired.

For many, the symptoms of both depression and anxiety are not severe enough (i.e. are subsyndromal) to justify a primary diagnosis of either major depressive disorder (MDD) or an anxiety disorder. However, dysthymia is the most prevalent comorbid diagnosis of GAD clients. Patients can also be categorised as having mixed anxiety-depressive disorder, and they are at significantly increased risk of developing full-blown depression or anxiety.

Various explanations for the high comorbidity between GAD and depressive disorders have been suggested, including genetic pleiotropy, meaning that GAD and nonbipolar depression might represent different phenotypic expressions of a common aetiology.

Comorbidity and Treatment

Therapy has been shown to have equal efficacy in patients with GAD and patients with GAD and comorbid disorders. Patients with comorbid disorders have more severe symptoms when starting therapy but demonstrated a greater improvement than patients with simple GAD.

Pharmacological approaches i.e. the use of antidepressants must be adapted for different comorbidities. For example, serotonin reuptake inhibitors and short acting benzodiazepines (BZDs) are used for depression and anxiety. However, for patients with anxiety and substance abuse, BZDs should be avoided due to their abuse liability. CBT has been found an effective treatment since it improves symptoms of GAD and substance abuse.

Compared to the general population, patients with internalising disorders such as depression, GAD and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have higher mortality rates, but die of the same age-related diseases as the population, such as heart disease, cerebrovascular disease and cancer.

GAD often coexists with conditions associated with stress, such as muscle tension and irritable bowel syndrome.

Patients with GAD can sometimes present with symptoms such as insomnia or headaches as well as pain and interpersonal problems.

Further research suggests that about 20% to 40% of individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have comorbid anxiety disorders, with GAD being the most prevalent.

Those with GAD have a lifetime comorbidity prevalence of 30% to 35% with alcohol use disorder and 25% to 30% for another substance use disorder. People with both GAD and a substance use disorder also have a higher lifetime prevalence for other comorbidities. A study found that GAD was the primary disorder in slightly more than half of the 18 participants that were comorbid with alcohol use disorder.

Epidemiology

GAD is often estimated to affect approximately 3-6% of adults and 5% of children and adolescents. Although estimates have varied to suggest a GAD prevalence of 3% in children and 10.8% in adolescents. When GAD manifests in children and adolescents, it typically begins around 8 to 9 years of age.

Estimates regarding prevalence of GAD or lifetime risk (i.e. lifetime morbid risk (LMR)) for GAD vary depending upon which criteria are used for diagnosing GAD (e.g. DSM-5 vs ICD-10) although estimates do not vary widely between diagnostic criteria. In general, ICD-10 is more inclusive than DSM-5, so estimates regarding prevalence and lifetime risk tend to be greater using ICD-10. In regard to prevalence, in a given year, about two (2%) percent of adults in the United States and Europe have been suggested to suffer GAD. However, the risk of developing GAD at any point in life has been estimated at 9.0%. Although it is possible to experience a single episode of GAD during one’s life, most people who experience GAD experience it repeatedly over the course of their lives as a chronic or ongoing condition. GAD is diagnosed twice as frequently in women as in men and is more often diagnosed in those who are separated, divorced, unemployed, widowed or have low levels of education, and among those with low socioeconomic status. African Americans have higher odds of having GAD and the disorder often manifests itself in different patterns. It has been suggested that greater prevalence of GAD in women may be because women are more likely than men to live in poverty, are more frequently the subject of discrimination, and be sexually and physically abused more often than men. In regard to the first incidence of GAD in an individual’s life course, a first manifestation of GAD usually occurs between the late teenage years and the early twenties with the median age of onset being approximately 31 and mean age of onset being 32.7. However, GAD can begin or reoccur at any point in life. Indeed, GAD is common in the elderly population.

  • US: Approximately 3.1% of people age 18 and over in a given year (9.5 million).
  • UK: 5.9% of adults were affected by GAD in 2019.
  • Australia: 3% of adults
  • Canada: 2.5%.
  • Italy: 2.9%
  • Taiwan: 0.4%.