N-acetylcysteine (NAC) Also Effective in Unipolar Depression

November 14, 2012 · Posted in Current Treatments 

depressed man

In 2008, Michael Berk and colleagues showed that N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is effective as an adjunctive treatment for bipolar depression. At the 2012 meeting of the International Congress of Neuropsychopharmacology, Berk reported that NAC (1000 mg twice a day) was also effective in unipolar depression, significantly beating placebo in a randomized double-blind 12-week study.

Editor’s Note: NAC has a broad spectrum of clinical efficacy in bipolar and unipolar depression, negative symptoms of schizophrenia (such as apathy and withdrawal), irritability in autism, trichotillomania (compulsive hair-pulling), gambling addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and many substance-abuse disorders, such as cocaine, heroin, alcohol, and marijuana.

How can one substance do all this? NAC has antioxidant effects, it turns into glutathione (an antioxidant that is the body’s main defense against oxidative stress and free radicals), it has neuroprotective effects (causing neurite sprouting), and it re-regulates glutamate in the reward area of the brain, the nucleus accumbens. Berk believes it is NAC’s antioxidant properties that produce its positive effects in such a range of illnesses, while this editor (Robert M. Post) favors the glutamate mechanism (as discussed in BNN Volume 14, Issue 1 from 2010 and Volume 16, Issue 1 from 2012) as an explanation of NAC’s effects.

Whatever its mechanism turns out to be, NAC is worthy of consideration as an adjunctive treatment.  It is readily available from health food stores without a prescription, relatively inexpensive (less than $20 for 100 pills), and relatively well-tolerated. Minor gastrointestinal upsets were the most common reported side effect in the Berk’s clinical trial. However, this editor has had one patient experience a worsening of psychosis.

Editor Robert M. Post’s Personal Opinion About NAC

With the usual caveat that all treatment strategies discussed in the BNN must be evaluated and administered by a physician, it may be useful to consider adding NAC to a treatment regimen for a patient struggling with recurrent unipolar or bipolar depression, and/or a comorbid substance use disorder. Using conventional treatments early in the course of these disorders for acute treatment and for long-term prevention would be the first approach. For less than satisfactory acute responses, conventional adjunctive treatments (as recommended in treatment guidelines elsewhere) might be considered along with NAC, which in some cases can have a delayed onset of action. (Three months may be required to see maximal effects in bipolar disorder.)


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