The 21st century has become quite a dry spell for the development of new treatment methods for most brain challenges. In the 1990’s, new insight and understanding about the brain exploded and expectations were running high that these new insights would lead to a flurry of next-gen medications. In contrast, today, most pharmaceutical companies have a near-non-existent psychiatry and neurology pipeline. Many have exited the field entirely.
One reason for this may be the reliance on the Monoamine pathways which have been the focus of psych meds for decades. That ship has sailed, folks.
Steven Hyman, former Director, National Institute for Mental Health, stated, “drug discovery is at a near standstill for treating psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and common forms of autism.”
So what’s left? The aforementioned insights into brain issues have yielded some interesting possibilities. Multiple pathways have been shown to have effects on the brain and its state:
- Oxidative Stress
- Proteins that stimulate Neuronal growth
- Cell death (apoptosis)
- Mitochondrial dysfunction (energy producing factories in the cells)
Professor Michael Berk, Chair in Psychiatry at Deakin University, Geelong, Australia presented new findings at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress. He points to an incontrovertible evidence base that most major psychiatric disorders share inflammation and oxidative stress as part of their disease physiology. In addition, associated pathways including reduction in proteins that stimulate neuronal growth (neurotrophins), and increased cell death (apoptosis), as well as energy generation in organelles called mitochondria are intimately involved. Berk states: “This understanding provides an entirely new set of treatment targets.”
Berk’s work and its presentation focused on a substance called NAC, or N-Acetyl Cysteine. This amino acid appears to address some of the root issues of bipolar, unipolar, schizophrenia, depression, and autism by exerting these effects:
- Boosting Glutathione (a powerful antioxidant), thereby lowering oxidative stress
- Enhancing levels of nerve growth proteins, growing more neurons
- Reducing apoptosis pathways
- Reducing mitochondrial dysfunction
“These molecular effects of NAC have been investigated in a series of clinical trials, which show that NAC reduces the core symptoms of schizophrenia including negative symptoms such as improved apathy, social interaction and motivation. It also appears to reduce depression in people with bipolar disorder and at this meeting, new data on its role in unipolar major depression was presented. Furthermore, there is intriguing evidence that it reduces cravings in a number of addictions including cocaine, cannabis and cigarette smoking. “Apart from nausea, it appears to be relatively free of problematic side effects,” said Professor Berk.” (quote from the press release)
Please do not assume from this discussion that NAC is the answer to all problems and run out and buy a case (or ten). This article is not a substitute for medical attention: it is merely to inform of what current work is being done in the field of brain chemistry. See a qualified health professional before considering NAC or any other nutritional intervention.
For example, high doses of NAC can skew several blood tests, should not be taken with carbamazepine or nitroglycerine, and can (rarely) cause an allergic reaction. And as mentioned in the above quote, in large doses it can also cause nausea.
How grateful we can be that there are still curious, open scientific minds out there who are actively looking outside the box for treatments for tough brain issues. The more we understand the why and how of things, the more effectively we can discern the what. It’s a great time to be alive.