This new drug shows promise for treating schizophrenia

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In a new study, researchers found that an experimental drug may ease a range of symptoms that strike people with schizophrenia, without the side effects of existing medications.

They found that over one month, the drug helped manage the different ways in which schizophrenia manifests—from delusions and hallucinations to flattened emotions and social withdrawal.

The drug—dubbed SEP-363856—also appeared to avoid the side effects common with standard antipsychotic medications.

While there is a laundry list of antipsychotic medications for schizophrenia, they are decades old. And for the millions of people worldwide with mental illness, there is still a critical unmet medical need.

One issue with existing medications is that side effects can make adherence difficult.

Older, “first-generation” drugs can cause movement impairments similar to those seen in Parkinson’s disease—tremors, joint stiffness, and coordination problems.

Relatively newer, second-generation antipsychotics are less likely to cause those side effects, but they can spur weight gain and high blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

Beyond that, existing medications only address one group of schizophrenia symptoms—the hallucinations, delusions and confused thoughts that doctors call “positive” symptoms.

The drugs work well against positive symptoms in about 70% of patients, but they do not ease the “negative” symptoms that plague people with schizophrenia.

“Negative” refers to what’s lost, and the symptoms include flattened emotions, difficulty feeling pleasure and withdrawal from others.

In the current study, the team tested 245 schizophrenia patients aged 18 to 40, all in the earlier course of the disease.

About half were randomly assigned to take SEP-363856 capsules once a day, while the rest received placebo capsules.

After a month, almost two-thirds of patients on the drug were showing a response—meaning their scores on a standard measure of symptoms had improved by at least 20%.

After that point, all patients had the option to enter a six-month extension study where the drug was given to everyone. Overall, the effectiveness was maintained.

This drug might help with symptoms that are not improved by current medications, and it might not have the same side effects.

It’s not fully clear how the drug works, but it does act through a different mechanism than current antipsychotics.

The lead author of the study is Kenneth Koblan.

The study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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