Background: Nicotinic receptor dysfunction is a possible mechanism of the abnormal sensory gating observed in schizophrenia with the P50 auditory event-related potential. Although nicotinic receptors normally desensitize after activation by acetylcholine or nicotine, pathologically increased desensitization might cause receptor dysfunction in schizophrenia. To examine this possibility, central cholinergic neuronal activity was diminished by allowing schizophrenic patients to sleep briefly, after which they experienced a transient period of normal P50 gating, consistent with receptor resensitization during the absence of cholinergic stimulation. A critical test of the mechanism is whether this resensitization is blocked by concurrent administration of nicotine, which would provide continuous receptor stimulation.
Methods: Six schizophrenic patients repeated the sleep experiment during nicotine exposure from a dermal patch, in a double-blind, placebo-controlled design.
Results: The normalization of P50 gating immediately postsleep was replicated in the placebo arm, but this effect was decreased in all six patients during exposure to nicotine.
Conclusions: The results suggest that nicotinic receptor desensitization is responsible for the loss of P50 gating in schizophrenia.