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Lane HY, Liu YC, Huang CL, Chang YC, Liau CH, Perng CH, Tsai GE. Sarcosine (N-Methylglycine) Treatment for Acute Schizophrenia: A Randomized, Double-Blind Study. Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Jul 18 ; Pubmed Abstract

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Comment by:  Dan Javitt, SRF Advisor
Submitted 3 September 2007
Posted 3 September 2007

A toast to success, or new wine in an old skin?
Patil et al. present a landmark study. It is the kind of study that represents the best of how science should work. It pulls together the numerous strands of schizophrenia research from the last 50 years, from the development of PCP psychosis as a model for schizophrenia in the late 1950s, through the links to glutamate, the discovery of metabotropic receptors, and the seminal discovery in 1998 by Moghaddam and Adams that metabotropic glutamate 2/3 receptor (mGluR2/3) agonists reverse the neurochemical and behavioral effects of PCP in rodents (Moghaddam and Adams, 1998. The story would not be possible without the elegant medicinal chemistry of Eli Lilly, which provided the compounds needed to test the theories; the research support of NIMH and NIDA, who have been consistent supporters of the “PCP theory”; or the hard work of academic investigators, who provided the theories and the platforms for testing. The study is large and the effects robust. Assuming they replicate (and there is no reason to suspect that they will not), this compound, and others like it, will represent the first rationally developed drugs for schizophrenia. Patients will benefit, drug companies will benefit, and academic investigators and NIH can feel that they have played their role in new treatment development.

Nevertheless, it is always the prerogative of the academic investigator to ask for more. In this case, we do not yet know if this will be a revolution in the treatment of schizophrenia, or merely a platform shift. What is striking about the study, aside from the effectiveness of LY2140023, is the extremely close parallel in both cross-sectional and temporal pattern of response between it and olanzapine. Both drugs change positive and negative symptoms in roughly equal proportions, despite their different pharmacological targets. Both drugs show approximately equal slopes over a 4-week period. There is no intrinsic reason why symptoms should require 4 or more weeks to resolve, or why negative and positive symptoms should change in roughly the same proportion with two medications from two such different categories, except that evidently they do.

There are many things about mGluR2/3 agonists that we do not yet know. The medication used here was administered at a single, fixed dose. It is possible that a higher dose might have been better, and that optimal results have not yet been achieved. The medications were used in parallel. It is possible that combined medication might be more effective than treatment with either class alone. The study was stopped at 4 weeks, with the trend lines still going down. It is possible that longer treatment duration in future studies might lead to even more marked improvement and that the LY and olanzapine lines might separate. No cognitive data are reported. It is possible that marked cognitive improvement will be observed with these compounds when cognition is finally tested, in which case a breakthrough in pharmacotherapy will clearly have been achieved.

If one were to look at the glass as half empty, then the question is why the metabotropic agonist did not beat olanzapine, and why the profiles of response were so similar. If these compounds work, as suggested in the article by modulating mesolimbic dopamine, then it is possible that metabotropic agonists will share the same therapeutic limitations as current antipsychotics—good drugs certainly and without the metabolic side effects of olanzapine, but not “cures.” The recent study with the glycine transport inhibitor sarcosine by Lane and colleagues showed roughly similar overall change in PANSS total (-17.1 pts) to that reported in this study, but larger change in negative symptoms (-5.5 pts), and less change in positive symptoms (-2.3 pts) in a similar type of patient population. Onset of effect in the sarcosine study also appeared somewhat faster. The sarcosine study was smaller (n = 20) and did not include a true placebo group. As with the Lilly study, it was only 4 weeks in duration, and did not include cognitive measures. It also included only two, possibly non-optimized doses. As medications become increasingly available to test a variety of mechanisms, side-by-side comparisons will become increasingly important.

There are also causes for concern and effects to be watched. For example, a side effect signal was observed for affect lability in the LY group, at about the same prevalence rate as weight increase in the olanzapine group. What this means for the mechanism and how this will effect treatment remains to be determined. Since these medications are agonists, there is concern that metabotropic receptors may downregulate over time. Thus, whether treatment effects increase, decrease, or remain constant over the course of long-term treatment will need to be determined. Nevertheless, 50 years since the near-contemporaneous discovery of both PCP and chlorpromazine, it appears that glutamatergic drugs for schizophrenia may finally be on the horizon.


Moghaddam B, Adams BW. Reversal of phencyclidine effects by a group II metabotropic glutamate receptor agonist in rats. Science. 1998 Aug 28;281(5381):1349-52. Abstract

View all comments by Dan JavittComment by:  Gulraj Grewal
Submitted 4 September 2007
Posted 4 September 2007
  I recommend the Primary PapersComment by:  Shoreh Ershadi
Submitted 8 June 2008
Posted 9 June 2008
  I recommend the Primary Papers