Benefits and limits of anticholinergic use in schizophrenia: Focusing on its effect on cognitive function



All currently available antipsychotic drugs are the dopamine D2 receptor antagonists and are capable of producing extrapyramidal side-effects (EPS). Anticholinergic drugs are primarily used to treat EPS or prevent EPS induced by antipsychotics in the treatment of psychosis and schizophrenia. However, they can cause a variety of distressing peripheral side-effects (e.g. dry mouth, urinary disturbances, and constipation) and central adverse effects (e.g. cognitive impairment, worsening of tardive dyskinesia, and delirium). Disturbances in cognitive abilities are cardinal features of schizophrenia from its earliest phases and account for much of the functional disability associated with the illness. It is likely that long-term concomitant administration of anticholinergics exacerbates the underlying cognitive impairment in patients with schizophrenia and subsequently affects patients' quality of life. Thus, current treatment guidelines for schizophrenia generally do not recommend the prophylactic and long-term use of anticholinergics. However, the high use of long-term anticholinergic drugs with antipsychotics has been identified as an important issue in the treatment of schizophrenia in several countries. To assess the benefits and limits of anticholinergic use in psychosis and schizophrenia, this article will provide a brief review of the pharmacology and clinical profiles of anticholinergic drugs and will focus on their effects on cognitive function in schizophrenia, particularly during the course of the early phase of the illness. In addition, we will address the effects of discontinuation of anticholinergics on cognitive function in patients with schizophrenia and provide a strategy for adjunctive anticholinergic use in patients treated with long-acting injectable antipsychotics.