Looking towards better patient outcomes in schizophrenia

Researchers at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute are looking to improve antipsychotic drug treatments for schizophrenia patients.

Schizophrenia is a developmental brain disorder, which develops in late adolescence, and affects the perception of reality and thoughts. It is a widely stigmatised and misunderstood condition often associated with unpredictable or violent behaviour. The chronic mental health condition affects 1 in 100 Australians and approximately 20 million people worldwide.

IHMRI’s Distinguished Professor Xu-Feng Huang has dedicated the past 20 years to studying schizophrenia, looking at better ways to treat the condition and improve patient outcomes.

Improving current treatments

Antipsychotic drugs are the most widely used method for treating schizophrenia and are used for a range of other conditions, including bipolar, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Parkinson’s Disease. Figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show prescriptions for antipsychotic drugs under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) increased by 359 percent over a 24-year period from 1992 to 2016.

Despite the wide use of antipsychotic drugs, they come with a host of side effects that can create other health issues for patients. In 2019, Professor Huang secured $1.5 million to support his research into the side effects of antipsychotic drugs used in schizophrenia. The funding formed part of the Federal Government’s $440 million investment in world leading health and medical research projects under the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) grant program.

Professor Huang’s research program investigates neuropathology and side effects of antipsychotics in schizophrenia. Current treatment mainly relies on drug therapy, which does not directly address the fundamental neurite and spine deficits. Drug treatment can cause cortical thinning of the brain, which leads to cognitive impairment, as well as severe metabolic side-effects such as obesity.

“I have a huge concern about the widely used antipsychotic drugs without considering the side effects. It has been prescribed to not only the elderly but to teenagers and even young children.”

Professor Huang

Addressing the root cause of negative side effects

Metabolic related side effects impact around 45% of users of antipsychotic drugs with the fat primarily stored around the visceral organs like the heart, liver, and gut.

“The problem with this type of fat is that it is bad fat around the inside of the body, and it can happen within two to three months, so it is rapid. On average, in one year, it can cause up to seven kilograms of visceral fat, which is huge,” said Professor Huang.

Professor Huang explained that because of this fat, the number one killer for patients with schizophrenia is not the disease itself, but a heart attack caused by the metabolic related side effects.

The second research program from Professor Huang’s team, aims to prevent and treat antipsychotic drug-induced obesity and cortical thinning by looking at the pharmaceutics. The aim is to keep the therapeutic side of the drug and remove the negative side effects by reviewing its clinical structure. Researchers hope that by addressing the root cause of these side effects, the use of the drug will be safer long-term for schizophrenia patients.”

A disease like schizophrenia – it’s not like a cold where it lasts for a week – it lasts a lifetime. Therefore, you must be on antipsychotic drugs, and if not, it can get much worse. This is why improving antipsychotic therapy and reducing the side effects is important,” Professor Huang added.

Share this story