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.
Memantine (Namenda) is an N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) glutamate receptor antagonist that is FDA-approved for the treatment of Alzheimer’s dementia. Its use in other illnesses such as bipolar disorder and autism is currently being explored.
As we have written in previous issues of the BNN, A. Anand et al. reported in 2012 that in bipolar depression, memantine has an initial antidepressant augmentation effect when added to lamotrigine, an inhibitor of glutamate release. Koukopoulos et al. also reported in 2012 that in an open study, memantine had a large and sustained effect in previously treatment-resistant patients with bipolar disorder, producing an impressive 60-70% rate of excellent response at 6 months and again at 12 months of follow-up.
There is some evidence that memantine can be useful in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study of memantine combined with fluoxetine published by Ghaleiha et al. in 2012, patients with moderate to severe OCD taking memantine and fluoxetine were more likely to achieve remission after 8 weeks than patients taking placebo and fluoxetine.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is another condition that memantine may be able to treat. Disturbances in NMDA receptor activity are thought to play a role in ADHD. Small, preliminary studies of memantine in ADHD have been promising.
New research has begun to explore memantine’s effects in autism. In one recent randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study published by Ghaleiha et al. in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, memantine produced improvement in children with autistic disorder when the drug was added to a treatment regimen that included risperidone, which blocks dopamine D2 receptors and is FDA-approved for the treatment of schizophrenia and mania, as well as autism.
However, at the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Robert Findling presented a poster on extended release memantine (Namenda) in children with autism, a study with negative results. This was a monotherapy study, unlike the above studies in which memantine was added to treatment with another drug. Findling found that extended release memantine (at doses of 3mg to 15mg per day) was well tolerated in children with autism, but the drug on its own was not significantly more effective than placebo in these preliminary studies.
Editor’s Note: Taken together, these data suggest an emerging role for memantine and possibly other drugs that work through NMDA receptor blockade in several disorders associated with repetitive behavior, like OCD and autism. The role of memantine augmentation in each of these syndromes deserves further exploration.