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Approved drug may find new use to improve memory and attention in people with schizophrenia

Internationally recognised scientists, Prof Cyndi Shannon Weickert and Dr Tom Weickert have recently reported that the drug raloxifene – an oestrogen-based medication – already used in the treatment of cancer and osteoporosis in women, improves the thinking ability, attention, and memory, in both men and women with schizophrenia.

“First we found that oestrogen activity might be adversely affected in the brains of people with schizophrenia,” says Prof Shannon Weickert, “and now we have found a drug that is already approved for other illnesses which stimulates the oestrogen hormone receptor in the brain and can improve attention and memory in some men and women with schizophrenia.”

This is the first clinical trial of a hormone-based treatment for both men and women with schizophrenia.

“We decided to find a new use for this already approved drug (raloxifene) since it stimulated the oestrogen receptor, was shown to improve thinking in healthy older men, and it did not have feminizing effects in males. Also, using an already approved drug would be much faster than trying to create a new one. We wanted to find a drug that could be used to treat people who suffer as soon as possible.

“We know that this brain receptor doesn’t work in the normal way for some people with schizophrenia. With this drug trial, we stimulated the faulty receptor to restore its function,” she says.

The fact that oestrogen modifies brain activity and impacts human cognition is of particular interest to Prof Shannon Weickert, whose twin brother died of schizophrenia in 2008.

She was curious as to why schizophrenia often appeared in adolescence. “By examining the neurobiology of sex hormones, we found that they control neuronal gene expression and impact cognitive and social development in adolescence.” She also found that receptors for the sex hormone oestrogen are abnormal, or mutated, in people with schizophrenia.

Prof Shannon Weickert teamed up with her husband, Dr Thomas Weickert, a cognitive neuroscientist, to trial this drug in order to turn her findings from the lab into a meaningful treatment for people living with schizophrenia.

The team hopes that this drug may eventually be used as a new, add-on therapy for people with schizophrenia.