Adding the dietary supplements folate and vitamin B12 to treatment with antipsychotic medication improved a core symptom component of schizophrenia in a study of more than 100 patients.
Folate and vitamin B12 supplementation reduces disabling schizophrenia symptoms in patients with specific gene variants
Adding the dietary supplements folate and vitamin B12 to treatment with antipsychotic medication improved a core symptom component of schizophrenia in a study of more than 100 patients. The study focused on negative symptoms of schizophrenia – which include apathy, social withdrawal, and a lack of emotional expressiveness. While the level of improvement across all participants was modest, results were more significant in individuals carrying specific variants in genes involved with folate metabolism. The report from a team based at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) will appear in the journal JAMA Psychiatry (formerly Archives of General Psychiatry) and has been issued online.
“The symptoms of schizophrenia are complex, and antipsychotic medications provide no relief for some of the most disabling parts of the illness. These include negative symptoms, which can be particularly devastating,” says Joshua Roffman, MD, MMSc, of the MGH Department of Psychiatry, corresponding author of the JAMA Psychiatry paper. “Our finding that folate plus vitamin B12 supplementation can improve negative symptoms opens a new potential avenue for treatment of schizophrenia. Because treatment effects differed based on which genetic variants were present in each participant, the results also support a personalized medical approach to treating schizophrenia.”
An essential nutrient, folate (or folic acid) is required for the synthesis of DNA and neurotransmitters and plays a role in the control of gene expression. Adequate folate intake during pregnancy can reduce the risk of birth defects – in particular neural tube defects – and studies have suggested that folate deficiency during pregnancy significantly increases the risk of schizophrenia among offspring. Earlier research by members of the MGH-based team associated low blood folate levels with more severe negative symptoms among patients with schizophrenia.
The current study was designed specifically to investigate whether supplementation with folate and B12 – which can magnify the effects of folate – reduced negative symptoms of schizophrenia. A 2011 pilot study found symptom improvement only among patients carrying a variant in a folate-pathway gene called MTHFR that reduced the gene’s activity. To get a clearer picture of folate’s effect on negative symptoms, the current study enrolled 140 patients with schizophrenia at community mental health centers in Boston, Rochester, N.Y., and Grand Rapids, Mich.
Participants were all taking antipsychotic medications – which have been shown to alleviate positive symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, but not negative symptoms – and were randomized to receive daily doses of either folate and vitamin B12 or a placebo for 16 weeks. Every two weeks their medical and psychiatric status was evaluated, using standard symptom assessment tools along with measurements of blood levels of folate and homocysteine, an amino acid that tends to rise when folate levels drop. Nutritional information was compiled to account for differences in dietary intake of the nutrients. Participants’ blood samples were analyzed to determine the variants they carried of MTHFR and three other folate-pathway genes previously associated with the severity of negative symptoms of schizophrenia.