New insights into the biology of schizophrenia through the mechanism of action of clozapine

Neuropsychopharmacology. 1995 Nov;13(3):177-213. doi: 10.1016/0893-133X(95)00068-O.


Many studies have detected in the brain of schizophrenic patients various morphological and structural abnormalities in various regions and in particular in the cortical and limbic areas. These abnormalities might in part result from neurodevelopmental disturbances suggesting that schizophrenia might have organic causes. These abnormalities may be the primary event in schizophrenia and be responsible for altered dopaminergic, but not only dopaminergic, neurotransmission in these regions. If schizophrenia is in some way strictly related to brain morphological abnormalities it becomes hard to believe that a curative treatment will ever be possible. Considering this scenario, treatment of schizophrenia will be restricted to symptomatic and preventive therapy and therefore, more effective and better tolerated antipsychotics are necessary. The widely used classical antipsychotic drugs present some disadvantages. They do not improve all symptoms of schizophrenia, are not effective in all patients, produce a number of unpleasant and serious, and partly irreversible, motor side effects. The atypical antipsychotic clozapine constitutes a major advance in particular for patients not responding to conventional neuroleptics. To explain the unique therapeutic effect of clozapine many hypothesis have been proposed. Most of the explanations given so far assume that the D2 blockade is the basis for the antipsychotic activity of clozapine and that the difference in respect to other antipsychotics is due to the contribution of other receptor interactions. Considering the dopaminergic receptor, in particular the recently discovered D4 receptor subtype, it has been observed that even if several classical neuroleptics exhibit high affinity to the D4 receptor, clozapine is more selective for this subtype compared to D2 receptors. Moreover clozapine, differently from all other conventional neuroleptics, is a mixed but weak D1/D2 antagonist. This observation has prompted speculation that the synergism between D1 and D2 receptors might allow antipsychotic effects to be achieved below the threshold for unwanted motor side effects. Probably the D1 antagonistic activity exerted by clozapine at low doses enhances preferentially the extracellular concentration of dopamine in specific areas of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, where a dopaminergic hypoactivity has been suggested to be in part responsible for negative symptoms of schizophrenia. The clozapine enhancement of dopaminergic activity in this brain area might explain its efficacy against schizophrenia negative symptoms. However, it cannot be excluded that the affinities displayed by clozapine for other nondopaminergic receptors also contribute to its unique therapeutic profile. The various hypotheses mentioned in this review need to be further validated or disproved. The only way to do that is developing new drugs where the postulated mechanistic profile is specifically realized and to clinically test these compounds.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antipsychotic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Clozapine / pharmacology*
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Receptors, Dopamine / drug effects*
  • Receptors, Serotonin / drug effects
  • Schizophrenia / physiopathology*


  • Antipsychotic Agents
  • Receptors, Dopamine
  • Receptors, Serotonin
  • Clozapine
  • Dopamine