Porphyria: reexamination of psychiatric implications

Psychother Psychosom. 1995;64(3-4):121-30. doi: 10.1159/000289001.


Acute intermittent porphyria mimics a variety of commonly occurring disorders and thus poses a diagnostic quagmire. Psychiatric manifestations include hysteria, anxiety, depression, phobias, psychosis, organic disorders, agitation, delirium, and altered consciousness ranging from somnolence to coma. Some patients develop psychosis similar to schizophrenia. Psychiatric hospitals have a disproportionate number of patients with this disorder as only difficult and resistant patients accumulate there. Presence of photosensitive porphyrins in the urine is diagnostic. When porphyrins are absent, excess of alpha aminolevulinic acid and porphobilinogen are present in the urine. The definitive test is to measure monopyrrole porphobilinogen deaminase in RBCs. This diagnosis should be entertained in the following situations: (a) unexplained leukocytosis; (b) unexplained neuropathy; (c) etiologically obscure neurosis or psychosis; (d) 'idiopathic' seizure disorder; (e) unexplained abdominal pain; (f) conversion hysteria, and (g) susceptibility to stress. Porphyria is important in psychiatry as it may present with only psychiatric symptoms; it may masquerade as a psychosis and the patient may be treated as a schizophrenic person for years; the only manifestation may be histrionic personality disorder which may not receive much attention. Diagnosis is based on a high index of suspicion and appropriate investigation. Various psychotropic drugs exacerbate acute attacks. While it is important not to use the unsafe drugs in porphyric patients, it is also imperative to look for this diagnosis in cases where these drugs produce unprecedented drug reactions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Porphyrias / classification
  • Porphyrias / diagnosis*
  • Porphyrias / psychology*
  • Porphyrias / therapy