Objective: To compare the consequences of a guided discontinuation strategy and maintenance treatment in remitted first-episode psychosis in terms of relapse rates and functional outcome.
Method: The study was conducted in 7 mental health care organizations and the Department of Psychiatry of the University Medical Center Groningen in The Netherlands, covering a catchment area of 3.1 million inhabitants. A sample of 131 remitted first-episode patients, aged 18 to 45 years, with a DSM-IV diagnosis of schizophrenia or related psychotic disorder was included (i.e., all patients with a first psychotic episode from October 2001 through December 2002 who were willing to participate). After 6 months of positive symptom remission, they were randomly and openly assigned to the discontinuation strategy or maintenance treatment. Maintenance treatment was carried out according to American Psychiatric Association guidelines, preferably using low-dose atypical antipsychotics. The discontinuation strategy was carried out by gradual symptom-guided tapering of dosage and discontinuation if feasible. Follow-up was 18 months. Main outcome measures were relapse rates and social and vocational functioning.
Results: Twice as many relapses occurred with the discontinuation strategy (43% vs. 21%, p = .011). Of patients who received the strategy, approximately 20% were successfully discontinued. Recurrent symptoms caused another approximately 30% to restart antipsychotic treatment, while in the remaining patients discontinuation was not feasible at all. There were no advantages of the discontinuation strategy regarding functional outcome.
Conclusions: Only a limited number of patients can be successfully discontinued. High relapse rates do not allow a discontinuation strategy to be universal practice. However, if relapse risk can be carefully managed by close monitoring, in some remitted first-episode patients a guided discontinuation strategy may offer a feasible alternative to maintenance treatment. Further research is needed to find predictors of successful discontinuation.