Scientists announced today that they have discovered a cure for apathy. However, they claim that no one has shown the slightest interest in it.” ~ George Carlin
I hear the word apathy tossed around all over the place from different places and people who use this term loosely to imply “lack of interest,” or ‘deep depression.’
However, as a neurologist the word apathy has not only a very special meaning but it also carries with it a specific diagnosis.
So, what does apathy really mean. Apathy as described by the Webster dictionary as “a state of perfunctoriness.” I love that word. It is a state of complete and total indifference in all realms of our being, emotional, spiritual, and social. People who suffer from apathy are completely and utterly devoid of concern, emotions, and feelings. Not because they don’t want to but because they are incapable of caring due to disconnect of fronto-cortical pathways.
Therefore, the term “apathy” in neurology is always a harbinger of brain illness particularly organic etiologies such as head injury, strokes, tumors, schizophrenia (although the latter usually considered a mental illness -I maintain it is an organic neurological disease because of involvement of dopamine- in this case too much) and of course the number one cause and almost synonymous with term of apathy is dementia – (e.g. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, vascular, Lewy body, fronto temporal, etc.)
Therefore, giving someone a diagnosis of apathy in of itself is a poor prognosis which implies typically a rapid cognitive decline.
Having said this, one must always identify the cause and try to treat it as best as possible and prevent further cognitive decline.
Medications employed in the treatment of apathy:
1) [of course are] medications used to treat dementia – i.e the acetylcholinesterase inhibitors like Exelon (Rivastigmine), Aricept (Donezepil), Razadyne (Galantimine), and Namenda (Memantine) an NMDA inhibitor. Several of these compounds have extended release doses and come either in patch or liquid as well or both.
Other medications include:
2) Dopamine replacement– no better feel good drug than dopamine especially if deficiency is what is causing the apathy but it is not always as easy as that in dementia patients particularly those who have dementia of Parkinson’s disease or other dementias associated with parkinsonism because the addition of dopamine will increase visual hallucinations and other hallucinations and worsen confusion. therefore, this has to be measured in scale of risk and benefits but usually in the majority of cases in PD associated apathy combined with other medications like antichlolinerasterase and antipsychotics.
3) Stimulants like Provigil (Modafinil)/ Nuvigil – used in the treatment of Narcolepsy but also for hypersomnolance or increased sleepiness. I prefer this class as first line of treatment over amphetamines after dopamine replacement. In my practice, I had a moderate to great success with them. Other stimulants include amphetamine derivatives such as those employed in the treatment of attention deficit disorder (Methylphenidate-e.g. Concerta, Ritalin; Aderall; Straterra).
4) Antipsychotics are also a good source to combat apathy but best if use atypical drugs like Clozaril or Seroquel because of decrease potential for extrapyramidal side effects like tardive (late onset) dyskinesias and parkinsonism. This is especially crucial if already dealing with apathy related to Parkinson’s or Parkinson’s plus syndrome. We don’t want to make motor symptoms worse resulting in freezing and falls or increase dyskenesias.
5) Anti -depressants– Ssri’s/SNri’s -E.g. Zoloft, Lexapro, Effexor, Cymbalta, etc.
6) ECT– electro convulsive therapy when all else fails -it works tremendously well despite all of the bad the media has given it based on past history and portrayal of patient abuse in movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Currently, there are several state of the art centers in the country which provide these much needed services which can help patients have a higher quality of life than the would otherwise -one may be near you. The alternative is earlier institutionalization.
As always early recognition of apathy is Key to improved quality of life by securing proper diagnosis followed by prolonged watchful supervision and treatment by a team of experts which include Neurologist, Neuropsychologist, counselors, social workers, therapist and loved ones to help with financial issues of caring for a chronically ill patient as well as help prolong nursing home admittance for as long as possible.