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Aberrant anticipation of motivational salient events and processing of outcome evaluation in striatal and prefrontal regions have been suggested to underlie psychosis. Altered glutamate levels have likewise been linked to schizophrenia. Glutamatergic abnormalities may affect the processing of motivational salience and outcome evaluation. It remains unresolved, whether glutamatergic dysfunction is associated with the coding of motivational salience and outcome evaluation in antipsychotic-naïve patients with first-episode psychosis.
Fifty-one antipsychotic-naïve patients with first-episode psychosis (22 ± 5.2 years, female/male: 31/20) and 52 healthy controls (HC) matched on age, sex, and parental education underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (3T) in one session. Brain responses to motivational salience and negative outcome evaluation (NOE) were examined using a monetary incentive delay task. Glutamate levels were estimated in the left thalamus and anterior cingulate cortex using LCModel.
Patients displayed a positive signal change to NOE in the caudate (p = 0.001) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC; p = 0.003) compared to HC. No group difference was observed in motivational salience or in levels of glutamate. There was a different association between NOE signal in the caudate and DLPFC and thalamic glutamate levels in patients and HC due to a negative correlation in patients (caudate: p = 0.004, DLPFC: p = 0.005) that was not seen in HC.
Our findings confirm prior findings of abnormal outcome evaluation as a part of the pathophysiology of schizophrenia. The results also suggest a possible link between thalamic glutamate and NOE signaling in patients with first-episode psychosis.
Poor response to dopaminergic antipsychotics constitutes a major challenge in the treatment of psychotic disorders and markers for non-response during first-episode are warranted. Previous studies have found increased levels of glutamate and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in non-responding first-episode patients compared to responders, but it is unknown if non-responders can be identified using reference levels from healthy controls (HCs).
Thirty-nine antipsychotic-naïve patients with first-episode psychosis and 36 matched HCs underwent repeated assessments with the Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale and 3T magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Glutamate scaled to total creatine (/Cr) was measured in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and left thalamus, and levels of GABA/Cr were measured in ACC. After 6 weeks, we re-examined 32 patients on aripiprazole monotherapy and 35 HCs, and after 26 weeks we re-examined 30 patients on naturalistic antipsychotic treatment and 32 HCs. The Andreasen criteria defined non-response.
Before treatment, thalamic glutamate/Cr was higher in the whole group of patients but levels normalized after treatment. ACC levels of glutamate/Cr and GABA/Cr were lower at all assessments and unaffected by treatment. When compared with HCs, non-responders at week 6 (19 patients) and week 26 (16 patients) had higher baseline glutamate/Cr in the thalamus. Moreover, non-responders at 26 weeks had lower baseline GABA/Cr in ACC. Baseline levels in responders and HCs did not differ.
Glutamatergic and GABAergic abnormalities in antipsychotic-naïve patients appear driven by non-responders to antipsychotic treatment. If replicated, normative reference levels for glutamate and GABA may aid estimation of clinical prognosis in first-episode psychosis patients.
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