Many patients with schizophrenia do not reach full remission on antipsychotic drugs alone. The anticonvulsant drug topiramate (Topamax) has shown some promise as an adjunctive treatment for schizophrenia. To clarify the results of studies of topiramate, researcher Christoph Correll and colleagues performed a meta-analysis of nine randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials of the drug. They found that when topiramate was added to antipsychotic treatment, it improved both positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia, and it also led to reduced weight.
Editor’s Note: Topiramate might also be useful for patients with schizophrenia who have the common comorbidities of alcohol and cocaine abuse, since in other studies of patients with these primary disorders, topiramate was helpful.
Most drugs used to treat schizophrenia target dopamine and serotonin receptors in the brain. While these are effective in many patients, relapse is common and side effects can be severe. Researchers are looking for ways to target other mechanisms that cause schizophrenia, and inflammation seems to be one of these. There is evidence that a treatment as simple as aspirin, when added to regular treatment with antipsychotics, can improve schizophrenia by targeting inflammation.
In a 2010 study by Laan et al. published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, patients with moderate or severe schizophrenia were given either placebo or aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid, 1000mg) in addition to their regular treatments every day for three months. The patients who received aspirin showed a significant reduction in the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, and to a lesser extent the negative symptoms, compared to those who received placebo. Cognitive function was not improved. The effect size (Cohen d) for the total scale score was 0.5, which is considered a “medium” effect and one that is clinically relevant.
The reductions in symptoms were greater in those patients who had more altered immune function.
The drug ketamine can bring about antidepressant effects rapidly when given intravenously, but these effects last only a few days. In a recent study, bipolar depressed patients with alcoholism or a family history of alcoholism in first-degree relatives had a more extended positive antidepressant response to IV ketamine than those without this history, and fewer adverse effects from the treatment. The study, published by David Luckenbaugh et al. from the National Institute of Mental Health in the journal Bipolar Disorders in December 2012, replicates similar findings in patients with unipolar depression, where positive family history of alcoholism also predicted better response and fewer adverse effects from IV ketamine.
Alcohol and ketamine have a common mechanism of action. They are both antagonists of the glutamate NMDA receptor, meaning they limit the effects of glutamate, the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. This suggests a theoretical explanation for why a history of alcoholism might relate to ketamine response.
Editor’s Note: Family history appears to be linked to how patients respond to different mood stabilizers. Lithium works best in those patients with a positive family history of mood disorders (especially bipolar disorder). Carbamazepine works best in those without a family history of bipolar disorder among first-degree relatives. Lamotrigine works best in those with a positive family history of anxiety disorders or alcoholism.
Drugs that are effective in patients with a family history of alcoholism all target glutamate in the brain. Lamotrigine decreases glutamate release, while ketamine reduces glutamate’s effects at the receptor. Both decrease glutamate function or activity. Like lamotrigine, carbamazepine also decreases glutamate release and has good effects in those with a history of alcoholism.
Memantine is another mood-stabilizing drug that is an antagonist of the NMDA receptor, like ketamine and alcohol. It will be interesting to see whether memantine will also be successful in those with a personal or family history of alcoholism.
New research shows that cocaine, defeat stress, the rapid-acting antidepressant ketamine, and learning and memory can change the size, shape, or number of spines on the dendrites of neurons. Dendrites conduct electrical impulses into the cell body from neighboring neurons.
Several researchers, including Peter Kalivas at the Medical University of South Carolina, have reported that cocaine increases the size of the spines on the dendrites of a certain kind of neurons (GABAergic medium spiny neurons) in the nucleus accumbens (the reward center in the brain). This occurs through a dopamine D1 selective mechanism. N-acetylcysteine, a drug that can be found in health food stores, decreases cocaine intake in animals and humans, and also normalizes the size of dendritic spines.
Depression in animals and humans is associated with decreases in Rac1, a protein in the dendritic spines on GABA neurons in the nucleus accumbens. Rac1 regulates actin and other molecules that alter the shape of the spines.
In an animal model of depression called defeat stress, rodents are stressed by repeatedly being placed in a larger animal’s territory. Their subsequent behavior mimics clinical depression. This kind of social defeat stress decreases Rac1 and causes spines to become thin and lose some function. Replacing Rac1 returns the spines to a more mature mushroom shape and reverses the depressive behavior of these socially defeated animals. Researcher Scott Russo has also found Rac1 deficits in the nucleus accumbens of depressed patients who committed suicide. Russo suggests that decreases in Rac1 are responsible for the manifestation of social avoidance and other depressive behaviors in the defeat stress animal model, and that finding ways to increase Rac1 in humans would be an important new target for antidepressant drug development.
Another animal model of depression called chronic intermittent stress (in which the animals are exposed to a series of unexpected stressors like sounds or mild shocks) also induces depression-like behavior and makes the dendritic spines thin and stubby. The drug ketamine, which can bring about antidepressant effects in humans in as short a time as 2 hours, rapidly reverses the depressive behavior in animals and converts the spines back to the larger, more mature mushroom-shape they typically have.
Learning and Extinction of Fear
Researcher Wenbiao Gan has reported that fear conditioning can change the number of dendritic spines. When animals hear a tone paired with an electrical shock, they begin to exhibit a fear response to the tone. In layer 5 of the prefrontal cortex, spines are eliminated when conditioned fear develops, and are reformed (near where the eliminated spines were) during extinction training, when animals hear the tones without receiving the shock and learn not to fear the tone. However, in the primary auditory cortex the changes are opposite: new spines are formed with learning, and spines are eliminated with extinction.
Editor’s Note: It appears that we have arrived at a new milestone in psychiatry. In the field of neurology, changes seen in the brains of patients with strokes or Alzheimer’s dementia have been considered “real” because cells were obviously lost or dead. Psychiatry, in comparison, has been considered a soft science because neuronal changes have been more difficult to see and illnesses were and still are called “mental.” Now that new technologies have made a deeper level of precision, observation, and analysis possible, we know that the brain’s 12 billion neurons and 4 times as many glial cells are exquisitely plastic–capable of biochemical and structural changes that can be reversed using appropriate therapeutic maneuvers.
The changes associated with abnormal behaviors, addictions, and even normal processes of learning and memory now have clearly been shown to correspond with the size, shape, and biochemistry of dendritic spines. These subtle, reproducible changes in the brain and body are amenable to therapeutic intervention, and are now even more demanding of sophisticated medical attention.
The anesthetic ketamine given intranasally may help children with a certain type of bipolar disorder. In an article published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2013, Demetri Papolos et al. reported seeing marked improvement in a subgroup of 12 children aged 6 to 19 years of age who were nonresponsive to the usual treatment regimens of lithium, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotics. Papolos has described these children as having the “fear of harm (FOH) subtype.” In addition to having typical mood swings, these children also have a fear of aggression, separation anxiety, sleep and circadian rhythm disorders, nightmares, thermoregulatory problems, and carbohydrate craving.
Ketamine was given as an intranasal spray using an inhaler in 10mg doses. Doses were increased until the targeted symptoms remitted. Average doses ranged from 30mg to 120mg, given every 3 to 7 days. All symptom areas including depression and mania improved markedly, usually within a few hours, and this improvement lasted 3 to 4 days. Four types of aggression (measured on the Overt Aggression Scale) decreased significantly.
There were some dissociative side effects that were usually mild to moderate, but occasionally severe. They resolved spontaneously, usually within the first hour after treatment, and there appeared to be tolerance to them following repeated administration.
The authors urged caution until findings from these cases are confirmed by more controlled studies, but they concluded that the magnitude and rapidity of effects in these children with treatment resistant bipolar disorder suggested effectiveness and safety.
We have previously summarized studies on ketamine, which when given intravenously can bring about rapid-onset antidepressant effects. Ketamine is a full antagonist (or a blocker) of the glutamate NMDA receptors. Another drug currently in development may work in a related way.
At a recent scientific meeting, researcher Sheldon Preskorn showed that the compound GLYX-13, a partial agonist at the glycine binding site of the NMDA receptor (meaning it allows partial function of the glycine receptors that aid NMDA receptor function), exerts rapid antidepressant effects like the full antagonist ketamine when administered intravenously compared to placebo. GLYX-13 allows about 25% of the receptor activity of the full agonists glycine or D-serine, and thus might result in a 75% inhibition of NMDA receptor function.
GLYX-13 did not induce any psychotomimetic effects (like delusion or delirium), which are possible with the full NMDA antagonist ketamine. The effects of GLYX-13 appeared within 24 hours, lasted at least 6 days, but were gone by day 14.
Editor’s Note: Long-term effectiveness of ketamine for treatment of depression is unclear, but in addition to its potential psychotomimetic effects, it can also be abused. Whether GLYX-13 may be easier to use, longer-lasting, or safer for longer-term clinical effectiveness remains a key question.
At a recent scientific meeting, researcher Carolyn Rodriguez presented a randomized controlled crossover trial of ketamine in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In contrast to a previous negative study by Block and associates at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), these investigators found that intravenous (IV) infusion of ketamine (0.5 mg/kg over 40 minutes) was associated with a larger reduction in obsessive-compulsive symptoms when compared with saline infusion. These effects were rapid in onset and persisted for approximately one week in 50% of the patients with OCD who had constant intrusive thoughts.
This dose of ketamine had previously been shown to induce rapid-onset improvement in depression and suicidal ideation in those with unipolar and bipolar depression. However, the improvement in obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms appeared unrelated to any antidepressant effect because the individuals with OCD had minimal depressive symptoms at baseline.
The traditional pharmacological treatments for OCD are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants, which require high doses and weeks to months before the onset of full effect. In contrast, Rodriguez et al. found a 90% response rate to IV ketamine within 3 hours.
Ketamine is a blocker of the glutamate NMDA receptors, and these data suggest that targeting these receptors can induce rapid onset of positive effects in OCD. However, as is the case with the acute antidepressant response to ketamine in those with depression, the best ways to extend this therapeutic effect long-term remain to be determined.
Another blocker of NMDA receptors, the anti-Alzheimer’s drug memantine (Namenda), has been reported in open studies to show improvement in those with OCD as well. N-acetylcysteine, a substance found in health-food stores, likewise appears to re-regulate a hyper-responsive glutamatergic system in the nucleus accumbens by other mechanisms, and was also shown to have efficacy as an augmenting treatment in OCD in those who are inadequately responsive to SSRIs in a 2012 article by Afshaw et al.
Editor’s Note: Taken together, the data with ketamine, memantine, and N-acetylcysteine suggest that glutamate-based mechanisms are involved in OCD and may provide an alternative target for therapeutics in addition to serotonin.
We’ve written before about the rapid-onset antidepressant effects of ketamine, an anesthetic that is used in human and veterinary medicine. At lower doses, intravenous (IV) ketamine can induce antidepressant effects in both unipolar and bipolar depressed patients. When doses of 0.5mg/kg are infused over a period of 40 minutes, antidepressant effects appear within two hours but are short-lived, typically lasting only three to five days. Results have been consistent across studies at Yale University, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and the National Institute of Mental Health. So far, clinical use has been limited by the short duration of the effects and the required presence of an anesthesiologist, which can be prohibitively expensive for many patients.
In a cover story in the January 2013 issue of Psychiatric Times, Arline Kaplan reviewed new findings about ketamine. The drug is a high-affinity, noncompetitive NMDA-glutamate receptor antagonist. It is not yet FDA-approved for use in depression.
According to a recent article by Murrough and Charney, response rates to ketamine are around 54% and the drug “appears to be effective at reducing the range of depressive symptoms, including sadness, anhedonia [the loss of ability to experience pleasure], low energy, impaired concentration, negative cognitions, and suicidal ideation.”
David Feifel, Director of the Neuropsychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Program at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), instituted a program there in which patients can receive treatment with ketamine for clinical purposes (rather than for research) after signing detailed informed consent forms and being warned that the treatment is not yet approved for depression and that its effects may be temporary. The UCSD Medical Center’s Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committee, with the support of the anesthesiology department, agreed that nurses may administer the ketamine in an outpatient setting, making the procedure more affordable.
There is still the question of how to make ketamine’s effects last. Read more
Bumetanide has been used for decades to treat fluid retention in those with heart failure or liver or kidney disease. In the brain, it allows chloride ions to leave cells more easily. Scientists researching pediatric seizures think that reducing the chloride inside brain cells helps GABA neurons’ inhibitory functions work better. This led to speculation that bumetanide could be useful in neonatal epilepsy and autism.
In a 2012 study by French researchers including Eric Lemonnier that was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, 60 patients aged 3 to 11 who had been diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s syndrome were given either placebo or 1mg of bumetanide daily for 3 months. By the end of the study, the children who received bumetanide showed an average reduction of 5.6 points on the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS), which is assessed from observing behavior during videotaped sessions of children playing with their caregiver and questioning the child’s parents. Children taking placebo showed a reduction of 1.8 points (a statistically significant difference). Clinicians in the study rated almost twice as many children who took bumetanide as having made a significant or a small improvement. Stereotyped behavior and restricted interest were the areas of behavior that seemed to improve most after treatment with bumetanide. Patients with milder autism when the study began tended to improve more than those who started out with more severe symptoms. Symptoms returned to previous levels within a month the study’s end.
Bumetanide’s side effects are well known. It can sometimes cause decreases in potassium in the blood (hypokalemia), so the children’s potassium levels were monitored closely. One child was withdrawn from the study for hypokalemia, which can predispose one to cardiac arrhythmias.
Fragile X syndrome is a genetic condition that is the most common single-gene cause of autism and inherited cause of intellectual disability. In addition to mental disabilities it is also characterized by certain physical characteristics (elongated face, protruding ears, and large testes in boys), stereotypic movements such as hand-flapping, and social anxiety.
When autism is associated with Fragile X, a mutation in the Fragile X gene is responsible for the autism. (It is also possible to have autism without Fragile X, or to have Fragile X without autism.) Fragile X is a genetic disorder like Downs Syndrome, while autism is a complex behavioral disorder, likely involving multiple genetic and environmental vulnerabilities.
A new drug called arbaclofen seems to improve social avoidance and problem behaviors in adults and children with Fragile X. Researchers hypothesize that normal social stimuli overwhelm a Fragile X patient because of a defect in inhibition, and arbaclofen acting on presynaptic GABA-B receptors reduces glutamate release, thereby reducing the overactive signaling associated with this defect.
In a 6-week placebo-controlled study of arbaclofen among 63 patients with Fragile X ranging in age from 6 to 39, patients 11 years old and younger received 10mg twice a day and patients 12 and up received 10mg three times a day. The drug was well-tolerated, with only a few reports of sedation or headache. While problem social behaviors and neurobehavioral function improved, irritability did not. The study considered irritability because that is the aspect of autism most often improved by other Federal Drug Administration-approved drugs for autism, such as risperidone and aripiprazole. In another study of arbaclofen in autism spectrum disorders, it did improve irritability and agitation.
Editor’s Note: The GABA-B agonist arbaclofen has previously shown positive effects in motor spasticity. The positive effects noted here in the social domain of autism spectrum disorders and Fragile X are very promising.