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The dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia or the dopamine hypothesis of psychosis is a model attributing symptoms of schizophrenia (like psychoses) to a disturbed and hyperactive dopaminergic signal transduction. The model draws evidence from the observation that a large number of antipsychotics have dopamine-receptor antagonistic effects. The theory, however, does not posit dopamine overabundance as a complete explanation for schizophrenia. Rather, the overactivation of D2 receptors, specifically, is one effect of the global chemical synaptic disregulation observed in this disorder.
Some researchers have suggested that dopamine systems in the mesolimbic pathway may contribute to the 'positive symptoms' of schizophrenia (whereas problems with dopamine function in the mesocortical pathway may be responsible for the 'negative symptoms', such as avolition and alogia.) Abnormal expression, thus distribution of the D2 receptor between these areas and the rest of the brain may also be implicated in schizophrenia, specifically in the acute phase. A relative excess of these receptors within the limbic system means Broca's area which can produce illogical language, has an abnormal connection to Wernicke's area, which comprehends language, but does not create it. Note that variation in distribution is observed within individuals, so abnormalities of this characteristic likely play a significant role in all psychological illnesses. Individual alterations are produced by differences within glutamatergic pathways within the limbic system, which are also implicated in other psychotic syndromes. Among the alterations of both synaptic and global structure, the most significant abnormalities are observed in the uncinate fasciculus. and the cingulate cortex. The combination these creates a profound dyssymmetry of prefrontal inhibitory signaling, shifted positively towards the dominant side. Eventually, the cingulate gyrus becomes atrophied towards the anterior, due to long-Term Depression (LTD) and Long-Term Potentiation (LTP) from the abnormally strong signals transversely across the brain. This, combined with a relative deficit in GABAergic input to Wernicke's area, shifts the balance of bilateral communication across the corpus callosum posteriorly. Through this mechanism, hemispherical communication becomes highly shifted towards the left/dominant posterior. As such, spontaneous language from Broca's can propagate through the limbic system to the tertiary auditory cortex. This retrograde signaling to the temporal lobes, results in the parietal lobes not recognizing it as internal, resulting in the auditory hallucinations typical of chronic schizophrenia.
In addition, significant cortical grey matter volume reductions are observed in this disorder. Specifically, the right hemisphere atrophies more, while both sides show a marked decrease in frontal and posterior volume. This indicates abnormal synaptic plasticity occurs, where certain feedback loops become so potentiated, others receive little glutaminergic transmission. This is a direct result of the abnormal dopaminergic input to the striatum, thus (indirectly) disinhibition of thalamic activity. The excitatory nature of dopaminergic transmission means the glutamate hypothesis of schizophrenia is inextricably intertwined with this altered functioning. Also, 5-HT, which regulates a wide variety of monoamine neurotransmitters, including dopaminergic transmission. Specifically, 5-HT2A regulates cortical input to the basal ganglia. Many typical and atypical antipsychotics are antagonists at this receptor, as well as 5-HT2C, which is expressed in many parts of the basal ganglia (striatum, prefrontal cortex, nucleus accumbens, amydygalia,and the hippocampus, all structures indicated in this disease). 5-HT2C also regulates dopamine release in response to dopaminerigic drugs as well. More research is needed to explain the exact nature of the altered chemical transmission in this disorder.
Recent evidence on a variety of animal models of psychosis, such as sensitization of animal behaviour by amphetamine, or phencyclidine (PCP, Angel Dust), or excess steroids, or by removing various genes (COMT, DBH, GPRK6, RGS9, RIIbeta), or making brain lesions in newborn animals, or delivering animals abnormally by Caesarian section, all induce a marked behavioural supersensitivity to dopamine and a marked rise in the number of dopamine D2 receptors in the high-affinity state for dopamine. This latter work implies that there are multiple genes and neuronal pathways that can lead to psychosis and that all these multiple psychosis pathways converge via the high-affinity state of the D2 receptor, the common target for all antipsychotics, typical or atypical. Combined with less inhibitory signalling from the thalamus and other basal ganglic structures, from hyoptrophy the abnormal activation of the cingulate cortex, specifically around broca's and Wernicke's areas, abnormal D2 agonism can facilitate the self-reinforcing, illogical patterns of language found in such patients. In schizophrenia, this feedback loop has progressed, which produced the widespread neural atrophy characteristic of this disease. Patients on neuroleptic or antipsychotic medication have significantly less atrophy within these crucial areas. As such, early medical intervention is crucial in preventing the advancement of these profound deficits in bilateral communication at the root of all psychotic disorders. Advanced, chronic schizophrenia can not respond even to clozapine, regarded as the most potent antipsychotic, as such, a cure for highly advanced schizophrenia is likely impossible, so the value of early intervention cannot be stressed enough.
Amphetamine, cocaine and similar drugs increase levels of dopamine in the brain and can cause symptoms which resemble those present in psychosis, particularly after large doses or prolonged use. This is often referred to as "amphetamine psychosis" or "cocaine psychosis," but may produce experiences virtually indistinguishable from the positive symptoms associated with schizophrenia. Similarly, those treated with dopamine enhancing levodopa for Parkinson's disease can experience psychotic side effects mimicking the symptoms of schizophrenia. Up to 75% of patients with schizophrenia have increased signs and symptoms of their psychosis upon challenge with moderate doses of methylphenidate or amphetamine or other dopamine-like compounds, all given at doses at which control normal volunteers do not have any psychologically disturbing effects.
Some functional neuroimaging studies have also shown that, after taking amphetamine, patients diagnosed with schizophrenia show greater levels of dopamine release (particularly in the striatum) than non-psychotic individuals. However, the acute effects of dopamine stimulants include euphoria, alertness and over-confidence; these symptoms are more reminiscent of mania than schizophrenia.
A group of drugs called the phenothiazines, including antipsychotics such as chlorpromazine, has been found to antagonize dopamine binding (particularly at receptors known as D2 dopamine receptors) and reduce positive psychotic symptoms. This observation was subsequently extended to other antipsychotic drug classes, such as butyrophenones including haloperidol. The link was strengthened by experiments in 1970s which suggested that the binding affinity of antipsychotic drugs for D2 dopamine receptors seemed to be inversely proportional to their therapeutic dose. This correlation, suggesting that receptor binding is causally related to therapeutic potency, was reported by two laboratories in 1976.
Genetic evidence has suggested that there may be genes, or specific variants of genes, that code for mechanisms involved in dopamine function, which may be more prevalent in people experiencing psychosis or diagnosed with schizophrenia. Dopamine related genes linked to psychosis in this way include COMT, DRD4, and AKT1.
Further experiments, conducted as new methods were developed (particularly the ability to use PET scanning to examine drug action in the brain of living patients) challenged the view that the amount of dopamine blocking was correlated with clinical benefit. These studies showed that some patients had over 90% of their D2 receptors blocked by antipsychotic drugs, but showed little reduction in their psychoses. This primarily occurs in patients who have had the psychosis for ten to thirty years. At least 90-95% of first-episode patients, however, respond to antipsychotics at low doses and do so with D2 occupancy of 60-70%. The antipsychotic aripiprazole occupies over 90% of D2 receptors, but this drug is both an agonist and an antagonist at D2 receptors.
Furthermore, although dopamine-inhibiting medications modify dopamine levels within minutes, the associated improvement in patient symptoms is usually not visible for at least several days, suggesting that dopamine may be indirectly responsible for the illness.
Similarly, a new generation of antipsychotic drugs (called the atypical antipsychotics) were found to be just as effective as older typical antipsychotic drugs in controlling psychosis, but more effective in controlling the negative symptoms, despite the fact that they have lower affinity for dopamine receptors than for various other neurotransmitter receptors. More recent work, however, has shown that atypical antipsychotic drugs such as clozapine and quetiapine bind and unbind rapidly and repeatedly to the dopamine D2 receptor. All of these drugs exhibit inverse agonistic effects at the 5-HT2A/2C receptors, meaning serotonin abnormalities are also involved in the complex constellation of neurologic factors predisposing one to the self reinforcing language-based psychological deficits found in all forms of psychosis.
The excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate is now also thought to be associated with schizophrenia. Phencyclidine (also known as PCP or "Angel Dust") and ketamine, both of which block glutamate (NMDA) receptors, are known to cause psychosis at least somewhat resembling schizophrenia, further suggesting that psychosis and perhaps schizophrenia cannot fully be explained in terms of dopamine function, but may also involve other neurotransmitters.
Similarly, there is now evidence to suggest there may be a number of functional and structural anomalies in the brains of some people diagnosed with schizophrenia, such as changes in grey matter density in the frontal and temporal lobes. It appears, therefore, that there are multiple causes for psychosis and schizophrenia, including gene mutations and anatomical lesions.
Psychiatrist David Healy has argued that drug companies have inappropriately promoted the dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia as a deliberate and calculated simplification for the benefit of drug marketing.