Secondary psychoses: an update

World Psychiatry. 2013 Feb;12(1):4-15. doi: 10.1002/wps.20001.


Psychotic disorders due to a known medical illness or substance use are collectively termed secondary psychoses. In this paper, we first review the historic evolution of the concept of secondary versus primary psychosis and how this distinction supplanted the earlier misleading classification of psychoses into organic and functional. We then outline the clinical features and approach to the diagnosis of secondary psychotic disorders. Features such as atypical presentation, temporal relation to detectable medical cause, evidence of direct physiological causal relationship to the etiological agent, and the absence of evidence of a primary psychotic illness that may better explain the presentation suggest consideration of a secondary psychosis. Finally, we discuss how careful studies of secondary psychotic disorders can help elucidate the pathophysiology of primary, or idiopathic, psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. We illustrate this issue through a discussion of three secondary psychotic disorders - psychoses associated with temporal lobe epilepsy, velocardiofacial syndrome, and N-methyl D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor encephalitis - that can, respectively, provide neuroanatomical, genetic, and neurochemical models of schizophrenia pathogenesis.