New study aims to help schizophrenics

By Thomas Pardee

A new study aimed at improving the quality of life for patients suffering from the mental disorder schizophrenia is underway in the Chicago area. Researchers hope a new medication being tested will offer hope to those suffering from the crippling symptoms of mental illness.

The independent Uptown Research Institute, sponsored by drug developer Sanofi-aventis, is looking for patients in Chicago to participate in the ongoing study, which started last year and is taking place in dozens of cities all over the United States. The study tests a new and undisclosed investigational drug for safety and effectiveness in improving cognition-which includes awareness, perception, reasoning and judgment-among schizophrenia patients.

Hal Coxon, a spokesperson for the institute, said the study is “uniquely different” because it doesn’t require subjects to stop taking their current medication. Instead, the drug is added to patients’ existing antipsychotic treatments.

“This removes one of the barriers of entry for people,” Coxon said. “One of the reasons is that people don’t want to alter their current regimen. o instead of altering, this drug will be a supplement to it.”

The study will also use a relatively new evaluation tool called MATRICS (Measurement and Treatment Research to Improve Cognition in Schizophrenia) to measure the subjects’ progress during the study. MATRICS is a complex battery of tests used to measure memory, attention, reasoning and social cognition in everyday tasks.

John Sweeny, professor of psychiatry, neurology and psychology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said though it isn’t perfect, MATRICS is a solid way to measure development in patients with mental illness.

“It’s a reasonable way to look at cognition outcomes with drug trials,” said Sweeny, also the director of UIC’s Center for Cognitive Medicine.

Dr. John Sonnenberg, Uptown’s executive director and the study’s principle investigator in Chicago, said MATRICS aims at measuring the progress in skills that are most challenging to patients.

“They’re looking at skill sets that are relevant to [schizophrenic patients], like the ability to handle money, or to predict a social reaction or response, or the ability to handle medications independently,” Sonnenberg said.

The study is best suited for stable patients whose symptoms are already being successfully treated with anti-psychotics, Sonnenberg said. Though symptoms of schizophrenia include hallucinations, voices, depression, isolation and lack of emotional awareness, the most difficult part of treating patients is getting them to seek treatment, according to Carolyn LaGioia, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Northwestern Memorial Hospital branch.

After seeking treatment, LaGioia said the next hurdle is getting patients to take medication.

“If someone tells you that you have a broken leg, you don’t think less of yourself, but if someone tells you have a broken brain, it’s different,” LaGioia said. “There’s a stigma attached to it because many people feel that mental illness is something they should be able to control. But, in fact, it’s biologically based.”

Greg Coughlin, 54, of Lombard was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which is a combination of schizophrenia and mood disorder symptoms, when he was 20. Since then, he’s battled drug addiction, depression, paranoia and social anxiety. He said thanks to a combination of two anti-psychotic medications and a mood stabilizer, he lives a relatively healthy, normal life.

“My medications have worked extremely well, for the most part,” said Coughlin, who works as a consumer specialist at the DuPage County Health Department. “I still have delusions. It takes all of 15 or 20 seconds, and then it’s over. So the medication is definitely effective, but not completely, and not for everybody.”

Sweeny said it’s common for patients to try multiple medications or combinations of medications before they find a recipe that works. He said there’s no clear reason why.

“Some of them work for one person, others for another,” Sweeny said. “That causes a lot of difficulty for patients. You try talking a paranoid patient into taking a drug that will change how his or her brain works. There will be a lot of resistance.”

LaGioia said the institute’s new study will likely have a greater response because it supplements rather than replaces existing medication.

“There are people who have been through 16 different medications and are tired of being subjects,” LaGioia said. “But if there’s anything out there that can make life better for these patients, there are plenty of people who would be willing to try.”

Coughlin said though he tried at least 11 medications before settling on his current prescription, he would be interested in participating in the institute’s study only because there isn’t a risk of losing what he’s worked for years to achieve.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m not comfortable in my own skin, or like I can’t connect easily enough. There are a lot of things that need fine-tuning in my people skills, and I think that cuts me out of a lot of life, a lot of enjoyment,” Coughlin said. “I don’t want to risk putting everything on hold while I go on other meds. If it doesn’t work I have to get back on and try and re-stabilize.”

Sonnenberg said the study will continue for at least another six months, or until Sanofi-aventis has finished its research.

LaGioia said NAMI supports the study, but that even if it does result in new treatment, it won’t be a panacea.

“Some patients will have tremendous success, and others it will not affect at all,” she said. “Subscribing medication to people with mental illness is an art, and it takes time.”