Showing posts with label cAMP. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cAMP. Show all posts

Monday, 11 December 2017

Cognitive Loss/Impaired Sensory Gating from HCN Channels - Recovered by PDE4 Inhibition or an α2A Receptor Agonist

Today we have a complex dysfunction, but we have a plausible understanding of the detailed biological underpinnings and several therapeutic options. It is relevant to people with autism who have impaired sensory gating (they find noises like a clock ticking annoying), and perhaps those who struggle with complex thought. It is very likely to be disturbed in some people with ADHD and many with schizophrenia.

Trouble in the Pre-Frontal Cortex

For a recap on sensory gating, here is an earlier post:-

Sensory Gating in Autism, Particularly Asperger's

Today’s dysfunction relates to HCN channels located on those tiny dendritic spines in a part of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex. These are a type of voltage gated potassium channel found in your brain and heart, there are 4 types, it looks to me that HCN2 is the key one today.
The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is seen as the part of the brain most affected by mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar, ADHD etc.), although medicine’s current understanding looks rather medieval to me.
These HCN channels can open when they are exposed to cAMP (cyclic adenosine monophosphate). When open, the information can no longer flow into the cell, and thus the network (created by numerous interacting neurons) is effectively disconnected.
By keeping these channels closed, it is thought that you can improve working memory and reducing distractibility. Now you might think distractibility is an odd word, and it is not a word I expected to encounter, what it really means is impaired sensory gating. This is a core feature of Asperger’s, ADHD and schizophrenia.
One of the key risk genes for schizophrenia, DISC1, also affects HCN channels and this may account for some of the cognitive deficit found in schizophrenia. High level thinking is particularly affected.  It is thought that loss of DISC1 function in the PFC would likely prevent proper PDE4 function, leading to a dysregulated build-up of cAMP in dendritic spines resulting in excessive opening of HCN channels

I did wonder how nicotine fits in, since in earlier post we saw that α7 nAChR agonists, like nicotine, improve sensory gating and indeed that people with schizophrenia tend to be smokers. It turns out that nicotine is also an HCN channel blocker. For a change, everything seems to fit nicely together. There are different ways to block HCN channels, some of which are indirect. One common ADHD drug, Guanfacine, keeps these channels closed, but in a surprising way.
Alpha-2A adrenergic receptors near the HCN channels, on those dendritic spines, inhibit the production of cAMP and the HCN channels stay closed, allowing the information to pass through into the cell, connecting the network. These Alpha-2A adrenergic  receptors are stimulated by a natural brain chemical norepinephrine, or by drugs like Guanfacine.
Stress appears to flood PFC neurons with cAMP, which opens HCN channels, temporarily disconnects networks, and impairs higher cognitive abilities.
This would explain why stress makes people’s sensory gating problems get worse. So someone with Asperger’s would get more distracted/disturbed at exam time at school for example, or when he goes for a job interview. Reducing stress is another method to improve sensory gating and indeed cognition. In Monty, aged 14 with ASD, the only time he exhibits significantly impaired sensory gating, is when he has stopped all his Polypill therapies for several days. I think stress/anxiety is what has changed and this opens those HCN channels. Then even the sound of someone eating food next to him makes him angry.
Excessive opening of HCN channels might underlie many lapses in higher cognitive function.
While the researchers at Yale patented the idea of HCN blockers to improve cognition, we can see how other existing ideas to improve cognition may indeed have the same mechanism, most notably PDE4 inhibitors.
The University of Maastricht holds patents on the use of Roflumilast, a PDE4 inhibitor, to improve cognition; most interestingly, this takes effect at one fifth of the COPD dosage, for which it is an approved drug. At high doses PDE4 inhibitors have annoying side effects, but at low doses they tend to be trouble-free.
One effect of a PDE4 inhibitor is that it reduces cAMP. So a PDE4 inhibitor acts indirectly like an HCN blocker.
Not surprisingly recent research showed that low doses of Roflumilast improves sensory gating in those affected by this issue.
So rather than waiting for a brain selective HCN blocker, the potential exists to use a one fifth dose of Roflumilast today. This is something that should indeed be investigated across different types of cognitive dysfunction.
There are numerous dysfunctions that can impair cognition and they can occur in different diagnosis. For example impaired autophagy is a key feature of Huntington’s, impaired remyelination defines multiple sclerosis, low levels of nerve growth factor are a key feature of Rett syndrome. Less severe dysfunctions of these processes occur in entirely different conditions.
It is thought that people with Alzheimer’s might benefit from PDE4 inhibition. If it was me, I would try it in all types of dementia or cognitive loss of any kind.

PDE4 Inhibitors
There have been many mentions of PDE4 inhibitors elsewhere in this blog. They are broadly anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant, but currently only widely used to treat asthma in Japan and COPD in Western countries. COPD is a kind of very severe asthma.
Traditionally a PDE4 inhibitor is thought of as drug used to block the degradative action of phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4) on cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). That all sound complicated, just think of it as increasing cAMP.
Now cAMP is a messenger in many biological processes, one of which relates to PKA (Protein Kinase A). In autism we know that PKA, PKB and PKC are often disturbed. These PKs are very important because they have the ability to literally change the function of thousands of proteins in your body. This is similar to how epigenetic tags can switch on or switch off a particular gene. PKs, via a different mechanism we will look at in another post, change the function of proteins, so it is very important that you have the correct level of PKA, PKB and PKC.
We saw in a recent post that the Pitt Hopkins gene TCF4 is regulated by PKA and that under-expression of TCF4 is also a feature of some ID and schizophrenia. So more PKA, please.

You can use a PDE4 inhibitor to increase cAMP, which then increases PKA.

Other effects of PDE4 inhibitors
Today’s post is about sensory gating and the effect here of PDE4 inhibitors is via the effect of cAMP on those HCN channels in your tiny dendritic spines.
There are numerous other effects of PDE4 that may also be therapeutic. One interesting effect is that inhibition of PDE4 can mimic calorie restriction by activating AMPK/SIRT1 pathway.
Calorie restriction has just been shown in a large trial to be able to reverse type 2 diabetes, if initiated with a few years of the disease developing.
Humans have evolved based to periods of feast and famine. Periods of fasting may be therapeutic for many modern conditions.
Not surprisingly one side effect of PDE4 inhibitors is weight loss. Many psychiatric drugs cause troubling weight gain.

Acute administration of Roflumilast enhances sensory gating in healthy young humans in a randomized trial. 




Sensory gating is a process involved in early information processing which prevents overstimulation of higher cortical areas by filtering sensory information. Research has shown that the process of sensory gating is disrupted in patients suffering from clinical disorders including attention deficit hyper activity disorder, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease. Phosphodiesterase (PDE) inhibitors have received an increased interest as a tool to improve cognitive performance in both animals and man, including sensory gating.


The current study investigated the effects of the PDE4 inhibitor Roflumilast in a sensory gating paradigm in 20 healthy young human volunteers (age range 18-30 years). We applied a placebo-controlled randomized cross-over design and tested three doses (100, 300, 1000 μg).


Results show that Roflumilast improves sensory gating in healthy young human volunteers only at the 100-μg dose. The effective dose of 100 μg is five times lower than the clinically approved dose for the treatment of acute exacerbations in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). No side-effects, such as nausea and emesis, were observed at this dose. This means Roflumilast shows a beneficial effect on gating at a dose that had no adverse effects reported following single-dose administration in the present study.


The PDE4 inhibitor Roflumilast has a favourable side-effect profile at a cognitively effective dose and could be considered as a treatment in disorders affected by disrupted sensory gating.

Background Information
Selective phosphodiesterase (PDE) inhibition has been considered as a very promising target for cognition enhancement.
Roflumilast is a PDE4 inhibitor that has been developed by Takeda for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). In recent year, Maastricht University has been collaborating with Takeda to develop Roflumilast for cognitive impairments
In 2015 Takeda sold COPD indication of Roflumilast to AstraZeneca, and ownership of IP for treatment of cognitive impairment returned to Maastricht University.
Compelling clinical results
A single administration of Roflumilast improves episodic memory in mice, and in young and elderly healthy subjects at a non-emetic dose
As shown in the figure, healthy (A) and memory impaired (B) elderly subjects showed better performances in the delayed recall of the Verbal Learning Task after roflumilast

Key Features and Advantages
Opportunities to reposition a clinically-proven safe compound with a well-established pharmacology.
Compelling preclinical and clinical evidences showing that Roflumilast effectively deliver to the brain to produce robust cognitive enhancement.
Pro-cognitive effects at low dose (5 times lower than COPD indication), which allows to circumvent the emetic effects commonly observed with other PDE4 inhibitors
Maastricht University has a strong IP protection extending to at least 2033.

PDE inhibitors in psychiatry--future options for dementia, depression and schizophrenia?

Author information


Phosphodiesterases are key enzymes in cellular signalling pathways. They degrade cyclic nucleotides and their inhibition via specific inhibitors offers unique 'receptor-independent' opportunities to modify cellular function. An increasing number of in vitro and animal model studies point to innovative treatment options in neurology and psychiatry. This review critiques a selection of recent studies and developments with a focus on dementia/neuroprotection, depression and schizophrenia. Despite increased interest among the clinical neurosciences, there are still no approved PDE inhibitors for clinical use in neurology or psychiatry. Adverse effects are a major impediment for clinical approval. It is therefore necessary to search for more specific inhibitors at the level of different PDE sub-families and isoforms.

The current study found that brain cells in PFC contain ion channels called hyperpolarization-activated cyclic nucleotide-gated channels (HCN) that reside on dendritic spines, the tiny protrusions on neurons that are specialized for receiving information. These channels can open when they are exposed to cAMP (cyclic adenosine monophosphate). When open, the information can no longer flow into the cell, and thus the network is effectively disconnected. Arnsten said inhibiting cAMP closes the channels and allows the network to reconnect.
Guanfacine can strengthen the connectivity of these networks by keeping these channels closed, thus improving working memory and reducing distractibility," she said. "This is the first time we have observed the mechanism of action of a psychotropic medication in such depth, at the level of ion channels."
Arnsten said the excessive opening of HCN channels might underlie many lapses in higher cognitive function. Stress, for example, appears to flood PFC neurons with cAMP, which opens HCN channels, temporarily disconnects networks, and impairs higher cognitive abilities.
The study also found alpha-2A adrenergic receptors near the channels that inhibit the production of cAMP and allow the information to pass through into the cell, connecting the network. These receptors are stimulated by a natural brain chemical  norepinephrine or by medications like guanfacine.
 “Guanfacine can strengthen the connectivity of these networks by keeping these channels closed, thus improving working memory and reducing distractibility,” she said. “This is the first time we have observed the mechanism of action of a psychotropic medication in such depth, at the level of ion channels.”
Yale has submitted a patent application on the use of HCN blockers for the treatment of PFC cognitive deficits based on the data reported in the Cell paper.

The full Yale paper:

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is among the most evolved brain regions, contributing to our highest order cognitive abilities. It regulates behavior, thought, and emotion using working memory. Many cognitive disorders involve impairments of the PFC. A century of discoveries at Yale Medical School has revealed the neurobiology of PFC cognitive functions, as well as the molecular needs of these circuits. This work has led to the identification of therapeutic targets to treat cognitive disorders. Recent research has found that the noradrenergic α2A agonist guanfacine can improve PFC function by strengthening PFC network connections via inhibition of cAMP-potassium channel signaling in postsynaptic spines. Guanfacine is now being used to treat a variety of PFC cognitive disorders, including Tourette’s Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This article reviews the history of Yale discoveries on the neurobiology of PFC working memory function and the identification of guanfacine for treating cognitive disorders.

Molecular modeling suggests that, similarly to ZD 7288, nicotine and epibatidine directly bind to the inner pore of the HCN channels. It is therefore likely that nicotine severely influences rhythmogenesis and high cognitive functions in smokers.

Modulation of HCN channels in lateral septum by nicotine

I think many people stand to benefit from the drugs mentioned in today’s post, but for different biological reasons. A person with Pitt Hopkins may benefit from Roflumilast because it will upregulate PKA and then increase expression of their remaining TCF4 gene.
In a person with schizophrenia there are multiple reasons these drugs might help them and it will depend on which genes they have that are misexpressed (TCF4, DISC1 etc.).
In a person with idiopathic Asperger’s and impaired sensory gating it looks like the effect on HCN channels is what is important.
I think low dose Roflumilast has great potential for many. The Japanese drug Ibudilast very likely will provide similar benefits, but at what dosage?
PDE4 inhibitors do have side effects at higher doses in part because there are several different types of PDE4 (PDE4A, PDE4B, PDE4C etc) and different drugs effect different subtypes differently.
Ibudilast is used as a daily drug therapy for asthma in Japan and is being studied as a therapy for Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in the US.
Roflumilast is sold by Astra Zeneca as Daxas/Daliresp but at a high dose of 500mcg to treat flare ups of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) it does cause troubling side effects, but it reduces your chance of dying from COPD.
The cognitive dose used in research is 100mcg. Higher doses had no cognitive/sensory gating benefit.
Further investigation of the ADHD drug Guanfacine should be made, because some of the people who benefit from a PDE4 inhibitor might get a similar effect from Guanfacine. People with Pitt Hopkins would not be in this category. A person with Asperger’s and impaired sensory dating should respond to Guanfacine, a cheap drug.
At the end of the day, choice of therapy will come down to side effects and cost. In the US, Roflumilast is expensive ($330), seven times more expensive than in some other countries; in the UK the price of the same 30 tablets is $50. One pack would be enough for 5 months at the suggested dose.