Pharmacotherapy for mental health problems in people with intellectual disability

Na Young Ji, Robert L. Findling

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Purpose of review Psychotropic medications are commonly prescribed to people with intellectual disability. We reviewed current evidence-based pharmacotherapy options and recent updates to guide clinicians in their medication management plans. Recent findings Antipsychotics, particularly risperidone, appear to be effective in reducing problem behaviors in children with intellectual disability. Evidence in adults is inconclusive. Methylphenidate appears to be effective, and α-agonists appear promising in reducing attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms. Lithium might be effective in reducing aggression. Evidence is limited to support the use of antiepileptic drugs, anxiolytics, and naltrexone for management of problem behaviors. Antidepressants may be poorly tolerated and might not be effective in reducing repetitive/stereotypic behaviors. In recent trials, glutamatergic and GABAergic agents for fragile X syndrome, and acetylcholinesterase inhibitors for Down's syndrome, failed to show efficacy. Growth hormone treatment might improve cognition and behavior in Prader-Willi syndrome population. Results from oxytocin trials on social behaviors are inconclusive albeit promising. Melatonin appears to improve sleep. Most trials of dietary supplements did not show benefits. Summary Evidence-based pharmacotherapy options in people with intellectual disability are limited, and many agents can cause substantial adverse events. For this reason, clinicians should consider pharmacotherapy as only a part of comprehensive treatment, and regularly assess drug effects, adverse events, and the feasibility of decreasing dose or withdrawing medications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)103-125
Number of pages23
JournalCurrent opinion in psychiatry
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016


  • intellectual disability
  • pharmacotherapy
  • problem behaviors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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