Schizophrenia is extreme form of mental illness commonly treated with a number of medications called antipsychotics, as well as with secondary means such as psychotherapy and a group of life skills training techniques collectively known as psychosocial treatments. Unfortunately, antipsychotic medications sometimes fail to adequately stabilize people with schizophrenia, or produce side effects that make continued use impractical or impossible. According to the results of a new study scheduled for publication in July 2013 in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, a medication previously used to treat heartburn may help improve the quality of schizophrenia treatment while reducing any associated side effect risks.
Schizophrenia can produce any combination of three sets of symptoms, known as “positive” symptoms, “negative” symptoms and cognitive symptoms. Positive symptoms of the disorder include the classic symptoms of psychosis—namely, delusions and hallucinations—as well as a range of disruptions in thought processing and certain alterations in normal body movement. Negative schizophrenia symptoms center around the absence of certain typical traits found in healthy human beings, including emotional responsiveness, an ability to feel pleasure, the ability to respond verbally during conversations, and the ability to form and complete plans for the future. Cognitive schizophrenia symptoms center around relatively abstract changes in the ability to do such things as use recently acquired information, pay attention to a conversation or other ongoing events, or make the higher-level judgments associated with logic and concrete decision-making.
Currently Available Medications
Antipsychotic medications are also sometimes referred to as neuroleptics. As their name indicates, doctors use them to treat the “positive” psychotic hallucinations and delusions that occur in people affected by schizophrenia. They can also help control some of the thought disruptions frequently associated with the disorder. Some antipsychotic medications have been in use for more than 50 years, while others first entered common use in the last 20 years or so. Generally speaking, the older antipsychotics belong to a group of drugs mental health professionals called typical antipsychotics, while the newer medications belong to a group of drugs known as atypical antipsychotics.
Some of the side effects common to a range of typical and atypical antipsychotics include heartbeat acceleration, sleepiness, lightheadedness during movement, unusual sun sensitivity, blurry vision, and skin problems. Side effects specifically associated with typical antipsychotics include trembling muscles, spasming muscles, unusually rigid muscles, and a more general inability to control muscle movement while at rest. Side effects specifically associated with atypical antipsychotics include altered processing of food calories, significant weight increases, and an accompanying spike in the chances of developing cholesterol problems or type 2 diabetes. In some cases, people with schizophrenia fail to gain sufficient relief from their antipsychotic medications, or develop side effects that reduce their willingness to stick to their treatment routines.
New Treatment Option
In the study set for publication in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, a team of Finnish researchers gave high doses of a common heartburn medication called famotidine to a group of 15 individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia; another 15 participants received a placebo medication that looked identical to famotidine. When used in the amounts required to treat heartburn, famotidine circulates in the bloodstream but does not pass into the brain in any substantial amount. However, the researchers conducting the study increased the normal dosage of the medication by 400 percent; this heightened dosage did reach the brain in medically meaningful amounts.
After one week, the study participants using famotidine started to experience the first signs of reduction in their “positive” schizophrenia symptoms. After one month of use, these participants began experiencing symptom reductions that qualify as significant according to the tests commonly used by mental health professionals to gauge schizophrenia severity. Critically, the people who took famotidine did not develop any side effects that reduced their willingness to voluntarily take the medication; for this reason, they responded well to their treatment regimens and maintained generally affirmative attitudes during medication use. In contrast, the study participants who took a placebo instead of famotidine experienced no substantial decrease in their relevant schizophrenia symptoms.
The authors of the Finnish study believe that use of famotidine gives doctors an effective, unique way to decrease and control the psychotic symptoms associated with schizophrenia. However, they acknowledge the preliminary nature of their work, and have already scheduled a larger-scale study in order to determine famotidine’s true usefulness as a schizophrenia treatment.