Pharmacological intervention for irritability, aggression, and self-injury in autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Michelle Iffland, Nuala Livingstone, Mikaela Jorgensen, Philip Hazell, Donna Gillies*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)

Abstract

Background: Pharmacological interventions are frequently used for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to manage behaviours of concern, including irritability, aggression, and self-injury. Some pharmacological interventions might help treat some behaviours of concern, but can also have adverse effects (AEs). Objectives: To assess the effectiveness and AEs of pharmacological interventions for managing the behaviours of irritability, aggression, and self-injury in ASD. Search methods: We searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, 11 other databases and two trials registers up to June 2022. We also searched reference lists of relevant studies, and contacted study authors, experts and pharmaceutical companies. Selection criteria: We included randomised controlled trials of participants of any age with a clinical diagnosis of ASD, that compared any pharmacological intervention to an alternative drug, standard care, placebo, or wait-list control. Data collection and analysis: We used standard Cochrane methods. Primary outcomes were behaviours of concern in ASD, (irritability, aggression and self-injury); and AEs. Secondary outcomes were quality of life, and tolerability and acceptability. Two review authors independently assessed each study for risk of bias, and used GRADE to judge the certainty of the evidence for each outcome. Main results: We included 131 studies involving 7014 participants in this review. We identified 26 studies as awaiting classification and 25 as ongoing. Most studies involved children (53 studies involved only children under 13 years), children and adolescents (37 studies), adolescents only (2 studies) children and adults (16 studies), or adults only (23 studies). All included studies compared a pharmacological intervention to a placebo or to another pharmacological intervention. Atypical antipsychotics versus placebo. At short-term follow−up (up to 6 months), atypical antipsychotics probably reduce irritability compared to placebo (standardised mean difference (SMD) −0.90, 95% confidence interval (CI) −1.25 to −0.55, 12 studies, 973 participants; moderate-certainty evidence), which may indicate a large effect. However, there was no clear evidence of a difference in aggression between groups (SMD −0.44, 95% CI −0.89 to 0.01; 1 study, 77 participants; very low-certainty evidence). Atypical antipsychotics may also reduce self-injury (SMD −1.43, 95% CI −2.24 to −0.61; 1 study, 30 participants; low-certainty evidence), possibly indicating a large effect. There may be higher rates of neurological AEs (dizziness, fatigue, sedation, somnolence, and tremor) in the intervention group (low-certainty evidence), but there was no clear evidence of an effect on other neurological AEs. Increased appetite may be higher in the intervention group (low-certainty evidence), but we found no clear evidence of an effect on other metabolic AEs. There was no clear evidence of differences between groups in musculoskeletal or psychological AEs. Neurohormones versus placebo. At short-term follow-up, neurohormones may have minimal to no clear effect on irritability when compared to placebo (SMD −0.18, 95% CI −0.37 to −0.00; 8 studies; 466 participants; very low-certainty evidence), although the evidence is very uncertain. No data were reported for aggression or self -injury. Neurohormones may reduce the risk of headaches slightly in the intervention group, although the evidence is very uncertain. There was no clear evidence of an effect of neurohormones on any other neurological AEs, nor on any psychological, metabolic, or musculoskeletal AEs (low- and very low-certainty evidence). Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)-related medications versus placebo. At short-term follow-up, ADHD-related medications may reduce irritability slightly (SMD −0.20, 95% CI −0.40 to −0.01; 10 studies, 400 participants; low-certainty evidence), which may indicate a small effect. However, there was no clear evidence that ADHD-related medications have an effect on self-injury (SMD −0.62, 95% CI −1.63 to 0.39; 1 study, 16 participants; very low-certainty evidence). No data were reported for aggression. Rates of neurological AEs (drowsiness, emotional AEs, fatigue, headache, insomnia, and irritability), metabolic AEs (decreased appetite) and psychological AEs (depression) may be higher in the intervention group, although the evidence is very uncertain (very low-certainty evidence). There was no evidence of a difference between groups for any other metabolic, neurological, or psychological AEs (very low-certainty evidence). No data were reported for musculoskeletal AEs. Antidepressants versus placebo. At short-term follow-up, there was no clear evidence that antidepressants have an effect on irritability (SMD −0.06, 95% CI −0.30 to 0.18; 3 studies, 267 participants; low-certainty evidence). No data for aggression or self-injury were reported or could be included in the analysis. Rates of metabolic AEs (decreased energy) may be higher in participants receiving antidepressants (very low-certainty evidence), although no other metabolic AEs showed clear evidence of a difference. Rates of neurological AEs (decreased attention) and psychological AEs (impulsive behaviour and stereotypy) may also be higher in the intervention group (very low-certainty evidence) although the evidence is very uncertain. There was no clear evidence of any difference in the other metabolic, neurological, or psychological AEs (very low-certainty evidence), nor between groups in musculoskeletal AEs (very low-certainty evidence). Risk of bias. We rated most of the studies across the four comparisons at unclear overall risk of bias due to having multiple domains rated as unclear, very few rated as low across all domains, and most having at least one domain rated as high risk of bias. Authors' conclusions: Evidence suggests that atypical antipsychotics probably reduce irritability, ADHD-related medications may reduce irritability slightly, and neurohormones may have little to no effect on irritability in the short term in people with ASD. There was some evidence that atypical antipsychotics may reduce self-injury in the short term, although the evidence is uncertain. There was no clear evidence that antidepressants had an effect on irritability. There was also little to no difference in aggression between atypical antipsychotics and placebo, or self-injury between ADHD-related medications and placebo. However, there was some evidence that atypical antipsychotics may result in a large reduction in self-injury, although the evidence is uncertain. No data were reported (or could be used) for self-injury or aggression for neurohormones versus placebo. Studies reported a wide range of potential AEs. Atypical antipsychotics and ADHD-related medications in particular were associated with an increased risk of metabolic and neurological AEs, although the evidence is uncertain for atypical antipsychotics and very uncertain for ADHD-related medications. The other drug classes had minimal or no associated AEs.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberCD011769
Number of pages590
JournalCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
Volume2023
Issue number10
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 9 Oct 2023
Externally publishedYes

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