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Naturally-Occurring Drug May Relieve Previously Untreatable Symptoms of Schizophrenia

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A compound that occurs naturally in the brain and other areas of the body may be a promising new treatment for the most severe and disruptive symptoms of schizophrenia.

A pilot study at the Durham, N.C., Veterans Affairs Medical Center, reported online on April 1 in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, suggests that the neurosteroid pregnenolone lessens symptoms of schizophrenia for which no treatment options are available. The research was conducted by a multi-institutional team led by NARSAD Investigators Christine Marx, M.D., and Richard Keefe, Ph.D., of the Duke University Medical Center.

NARSAD Scientific Council member Jeffrey A. Lieberman, M.D., of Columbia University, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychopharmacology of schizophrenia, who participated in the research, stated:

“Drug development for mental health disorders has been moving at a glacial pace, and we are in desperate need of new and novel treatments. This small, proof of concept study represents a potentially major advance.”

Also participating in the study were NARSAD Investigator Adam Savitz of Weill Medical College, Cornell University, and collaborators from the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

While antipsychotic medications can help reduce hallucinations and delusions associated with schizophrenia for some patients, the other two categories of symptoms often continue to significantly disable patients -- the so-called negative symptoms, such as apathy, lack of emotion and poor social functioning, and the cognitive symptoms, which include memory impairment and difficulty concentrating and completing tasks.

“If replicated through further research, pregnenolone could provide a novel treatment for the cognitive and negative symptoms in schizophrenia, which severely impact the daily lives of patients,” said Dr.Marx.

“Antipsychotic medications are the only FDA approved treatments for schizophrenia, but the effects are typically modest and do not address the fundamental core of the disorder,” added Dr. Keefe, Ph.D.

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