Catatonia: what is it, why does it happen and how do you treat it?

Some readers will no doubt have watched the 1990 movie, Awakenings starring Robin Williams and Robert de Niro, about a group of patients who had suffered a form of encephalitis and survived, only to be permanently in a state of reduced awareness and responsiveness. The movie was based on a book by the famous neurologist, Oliver Sacks, and explores the potential use of a new treatment for these patients. In his memoir of the same name, Sacks was referring to the possible beneficial effects of L-DOPA, a medication that is first-line treatment for Parkinson’s Disease. That book was written 40 years ago, so what have we learnt since then about this condition?

In this issue of JNNP, Wijemanne and Jankovic have reviewed this topic and have provided an insightful update on this condition . As noted in their review, catatonia can occur in numerous conditions, both neurological and psychiatric, and it is no longer regarded purely as a form of schizophrenia. In addition, there are a number of systemic conditions in which it can occur including cardiovascular, renal and connective tissue disorders. It can also occur as an adverse reaction to numerous medications.

While the exact pathophysiology remains unclear, the role of changes in GABA neurotransmission have been explored in depth and Zolpidem, a GABA-agonist, has been suggested as a possible treatment. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) remains a very potent treatment for this condition and neuroleptic medications are also trialled in some patients. However, as noted in their review, the question of why this occurs remains unresolved and is a question for future research.

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