Rationale: Alterations in the central cholinergic system of patients with schizophrenia such as reduced numbers of muscarinic and nicotinic receptors in the cortex and hippocampus may contribute to the cognitive impairment of schizophrenia. Therefore, pharmacological treatments that enhance central cholinergic function may be useful as cognitive enhancers in schizophrenia.
Methods: Searches were conducted for articles which investigated alterations of central cholinergic systems in patients with schizophrenia. Additional searches were conducted for animal and human trials of potential cognitive enhancing compounds that target the cholinergic system and any preliminary trials conducted with schizophrenic patients.
Results: Currently available treatments which are potentially suitable for this purpose include acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, muscarinic agonists, nicotinic agonists, and allosteric potentiators of nicotinic receptor function. Although some open label studies demonstrate modest cognitive improvements of schizophrenic patients treated with donepezil, data from a blinded, placebo controlled study demonstrate no effect. Data from a controlled trial of galantamine, a combined acetylcholinesterase inhibitor and allosteric potentiator of the nicotinic receptor, indicates that this may be an effective alternative. In addition, some preclinical data indicates that selective M(1) muscarinic agonists under development may have potential as cognitive enhancers and antipsychotic treatments for schizophrenic patients.
Conclusions: A cholinergic approach to ameliorating the cognitive dysfunction of schizophrenia appears viable. There is some preliminary data to support the efficacy of combined acetylcholinesterase inhibitors and allosteric potentiators of the nicotinic receptor, whereas future trials are awaited for more specific muscarinic agonists currently under development.