Twenty years of progress in paediatric psychopharmacology: accomplishments and unmet needs

The systematic assessment of the efficacy and safety of psychiatric medications in children and adolescents started about 20 years ago. Since then, a considerable number of randomised clinical trials have been conducted, including also a series of publicly funded comparative effectiveness studies to evaluate the therapeutic benefit of medications relative to psychosocial interventions, alone or combined with medications. On the whole, these studies have been informative of the paediatric pharmacokinetics, efficacy and safety of the most commonly used psychotropics. As a consequence, a number of meta-analyses have been conducted that have documented both the benefits and harms of the most common medication groups, such as stimulants, antidepressants and antipsychotics. Evidence-based practice guidelines have been produced, and clinicians can now better estimate the therapeutic value and the risk of treatment, at least at the group mean level. However, most clinical trials have been conducted in research settings, and this limits the generalisability of the results. There is a need for evaluating treatment effects under usual practice conditions, through practical trials. The ongoing debate about the proper role of pharmacotherapy in child mental health can be advanced by comparative effectiveness research to assess the benefit/risk ratio of pharmacotherapy vis-à-vis alternative treatment modalities. In addition, analyses of large population databases can better inform on the impact of early treatment on important distal outcomes, such as interpersonal functioning, social and occupational status, quality of life and risk for disability or mortality. Thus far, paediatric psychopharmacology has been mostly the application to children of medications that were serendipitously discovered and developed for adults. By focusing on the neurobiological mechanisms of child psychopathology, it may be possible to identify more precise pharmacological targets and arrive at a truly developmental psychopharmacology.