What is Phenelzine?

Introduction

Phenelzine, sold under the brand name Nardil, among others, is a non-selective and irreversible monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) of the hydrazine class which is used as an antidepressant and anxiolytic. Along with tranylcypromine and isocarboxazid, phenelzine is one of the few non-selective and irreversible MAOIs still in widespread clinical use. It is taken by mouth.

In June 2020, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) reported that the availability of phenelzine was discontinued in Australia due to global issues with the manufacture of the active pharmaceutical ingredient. However, unapproved phenelzine products may be accessed through alternative pathways, such as the Special Access Scheme (SAS) administered by the TGA. In October 2020, The TGA authorized two sponsors to supply an overseas-registered brand of phenelzine in Australia. In May 2020, the Specialist Pharmacy Service in the UK reported the unavailability of phenelzine from the sole supplier. In July 2020, supplies of unlicensed phenelzine 15mg capsule specials became available for UK patients. In February 2021, Phenelzine again became available in Australia as a subsidised medication through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Brief History

Synthesis of phenelzine was first described by Emil Votoček and Otakar Leminger in 1932.

Indications

Phenelzine is used primarily in the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD). Patients with depressive symptomology characterised as “atypical”, “nonendogenous”, and/or “neurotic” respond particularly well to phenelzine. The medication is also useful in patients who do not respond favourably to first and second-line treatments for depression, or are “treatment-resistant”. In addition to being a recognised treatment for major depressive disorder, phenelzine is effective in treating dysthymia, bipolar depression (BD), panic disorder (PD), social anxiety disorder, bulimia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Phenelzine showed promise in a phase II clinical trial from March 2020 in treating prostate cancer.

Pharmacology

Pharmacodynamics

Phenelzine is a non-selective and irreversible inhibitor of the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO). It inhibits both of the respective isoforms of MAO, MAO-A and MAO-B, and does so almost equally, with slight preference for the former. By inhibiting MAO, phenelzine prevents the breakdown of the monoamine neurotransmitters serotonin, melatonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine, as well as the trace amine neuromodulators such as phenethylamine, tyramine, octopamine, and tryptamine. This leads to an increase in the extracellular concentrations of these neurochemicals and therefore an alteration in neurochemistry and neurotransmission. This action is thought to be the primary mediator in phenelzine’s therapeutic benefits.

Phenelzine and its metabolites also inhibit at least two other enzymes to a lesser extent, of which are alanine transaminase (ALA-T), and γ-Aminobutyric acid transaminase (GABA-T), the latter of which is not caused by phenelzine itself, but by a phenelzine metabolite phenylethylidenehydrazine (PEH). By inhibiting ALA-T and GABA-T, phenelzine causes an increase in the alanine and GABA levels in the brain and body. GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the mammalian central nervous system, and is very important for the normal suppression of anxiety, stress, and depression. Phenelzine’s action in increasing GABA concentrations may significantly contribute to its antidepressant, and especially, anxiolytic/antipanic properties, the latter of which have been considered superior to those of other antidepressants. As for ALA-T inhibition, though the consequences of disabling this enzyme are currently not well understood, there is some evidence to suggest that it is this action of the hydrazines (including phenelzine) which may be responsible for the occasional incidence of hepatitis and liver failure.

Phenelzine has also been shown to metabolise to phenethylamine (PEA). PEA acts as a releasing agent of norepinephrine and dopamine, and this occurs in the same manner as amphetamine (very similar in structure) by being taken up into vesicles, and displacing, and causing the release of those monoamines (though with markedly different pharmacokinetics such as a far shorter duration of action). Although this is indeed the same mechanism to which some (but not all) of amphetamine’s effects are attributable to, this is not all that uncommon a property among phenethylamines in general, many of which do not have psychoactive properties comparable to amphetamine. Amphetamine is different in that it binds with high affinity to the reuptake pumps of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which phenethylamine and related molecules may as well to some extent, but with far less potency, such that it is basically insignificant in comparison. And, often being metabolized too quickly or not having the solubility to enable it to have a psychostimulant effect in humans. Claims that phenethylamine has comparable or roughly similar effects to psychostimulants such as amphetamine when administered are misconstrued. Phenethylamine does not have any obvious, easily discernible, reliably induced effects when administered to humans. Phenelzine’s enhancement of PEA levels may contribute further to its overall antidepressant effects to some degree. In addition, phenethylamine is a substrate for MAO-B, and treatment with MAOIs that inhibit MAO-B such as phenelzine have been shown to consistently and significantly elevate its concentrations.

Phenelzine usually requires six to eight weeks of treatment, and a minimum dose of 60 mg/day, to achieve therapeutic effects. The reason for the delay in therapeutic effect is not fully understood, but it is believed to be due to many factors, including achieving steady-state levels of MAO inhibition and the resulting adaptations in mean neurotransmitter levels, the possibility of necessary desensitisation of autoreceptors which normally inhibit the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, and also the upregulation of enzymes such as serotonin N-acetyltransferase. Typically, a therapeutic response to MAOIs is associated with an inhibition of at least 80-85% of monoamine oxidase activity.

Pharmacokinetics

Phenelzine is administered orally in the form of phenelzine sulfate and is rapidly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract. Time to peak plasma concentration is 43 minutes and half-life is 11.6 hours. Unlike most other drugs, phenelzine irreversibly disables MAO, and as a result, it does not necessarily need to be present in the blood at all times for its effects to be sustained. Because of this, upon phenelzine treatment being ceased, its effects typically do not actually wear off until the body replenishes its enzyme stores, a process which can take as long as 2-3 weeks.

Phenelzine is metabolised primarily in the liver and its metabolites are excreted in the urine. Oxidation is the primary routine of metabolism, and the major metabolites are phenylacetic acid and parahydroxyphenylacetic acid, recovered as about 73% of the excreted dose of phenelzine in the urine over the course of 96 hours after single doses. Acetylation to N2-acetylphenelzine is a minor pathway. Phenelzine may also interact with cytochrome P450 enzymes, inactivating these enzymes through formation of a heme adduct. Two other minor metabolites of phenelzine, as mentioned above, include phenylethylidenehydrazine and phenethylamine.

Adverse Effects

Common side effects of phenelzine may include dizziness, blurry vision, dry mouth, headache, lethargy, sedation, somnolence, insomnia, anorexia, weight gain or loss, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, urinary retention, mydriasis, muscle tremors, hyperthermia, sweating, hypertension or hypotension, orthostatic hypotension, paraesthesia, hepatitis, and sexual dysfunction (consisting of loss of libido and anorgasmia). Rare side effects usually only seen in susceptible individuals may include hypomania or mania, psychosis and acute liver failure, the last of which is usually only seen in people with pre-existing liver damage, old age, long-term effects of alcohol consumption, or viral infection.

Interactions

The MAOIs have certain dietary restrictions and drug interactions. The amount of such restrictions and interactions is far less than previously thought, and MAOIs are generally safe medications when administered correctly. Hypertensive crisis is generally a rare occurrence while taking MAOIs, yet may result from the overconsumption of tyramine-containing foods. As a result, patients on phenelzine and other MAOIs must avoid excess quantities of certain foods that contain tyramine such as aged cheeses and cured meats, among others. Serotonin syndrome may result from an interaction with certain drugs which increase serotonin activity such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, serotonin releasing agents, and serotonin agonists. Several deaths have been reported due to drug interaction-related serotonin syndrome such as the case of Libby Zion.

As is the case with other MAOIs, there is a concern regarding phenelzine and the use of both local and general anesthetics. Anyone taking phenelzine should inform their dentist before proceeding with dental surgery, and surgeon in any other contexts.

Phenelzine has also been linked to vitamin B6 deficiency. Transaminases such as GABA-transaminase have been shown to be dependent upon vitamin B6 and may be involved in a potentially related process, since the phenelzine metabolite phenylethylidenehydrazine (PEH) is a GABA transaminase inhibitor. Both phenelzine and vitamin B6 are rendered inactive upon these reactions occurring. For this reason, it may be recommended to supplement with vitamin B6 while taking phenelzine. The pyridoxine form of B6 is recommended for supplementation, since this form has been shown to reduce hydrazine toxicity from phenelzine and, in contrast, the pyridoxal form has been shown to increase the toxicity of hydrazines.

What is Tranylcypromine/Trifluoperazine?

Introduction

Tranylcypromine/trifluoperazine (brand names Parstelin, Parmodalin, Jatrosom N, Stelapar) is a combination formulation of the monoamine oxidase inhibitor antidepressant drug tranylcypromine and the typical antipsychotic drug trifluoperazine that has been used in the treatment of major depressive disorder.

It contains 10 mg tranylcypromine and 1 mg trifluoperazine.

The drug has been in clinical use since at least 1961. It is still available in Italy with the name of Parmodalin.

What is a Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitor?

Introduction

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are a class of drugs that inhibit the activity of one or both monoamine oxidase enzymes: monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A) and monoamine oxidase B (MAO-B).

They are best known as highly efficacious antidepressants, as well as effective therapeutic agents for panic disorder and social phobia. They are particularly effective in treatment-resistant depression and atypical depression. They are also used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and several other disorders.

Reversible inhibitors of monoamine oxidase A (RIMAs) are a subclass of MAOIs that selectively and reversibly inhibit the MAO-A enzyme. RIMAs are used clinically in the treatment of depression and dysthymia. Due to their reversibility, they are safer in single-drug overdose than the older, irreversible MAOIs, and weaker in increasing the monoamines important in depressive disorder. RIMAs have not gained widespread market share in the United States.

New research into MAOIs indicates that much of the concern over their supposed dangerous dietary side effects stems from misconceptions and misinformation, and that they are still underutilised despite demonstrated efficacy. New research also questions the validity of the perceived severity of dietary reactions, which has been based on outdated research. Despite this, many psychiatrists, who have little or no knowledge of and experience with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (and are thus unaware of their significant benefits), still reserve them as a last line of treatment, used only when other classes of antidepressant drugs (for example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants) have failed.

Brief History

MAOIs started off due to the serendipitous discovery that iproniazid was a potent MAO inhibitor (MAOI). Originally intended for the treatment of tuberculosis, in 1952, iproniazid’s antidepressant properties were discovered when researchers noted that the depressed patients given iproniazid experienced a relief of their depression. Subsequent in vitro work led to the discovery that it inhibited MAO and eventually to the monoamine theory of depression. MAOIs became widely used as antidepressants in the early 1950s. The discovery of the 2 isoenzymes of MAO has led to the development of selective MAOIs that may have a more favourable side-effect profile.

The older MAOIs’ heyday was mostly between the years 1957 and 1970. The initial popularity of the ‘classic’ non-selective irreversible MAO inhibitors began to wane due to their serious interactions with sympathomimetic drugs and tyramine-containing foods that could lead to dangerous hypertensive emergencies. As a result, the use by medical practitioners of these older MAOIs declined. When scientists discovered that there are two different MAO enzymes (MAO-A and MAO-B), they developed selective compounds for MAO-B, (for example, selegiline, which is used for Parkinson’s disease), to reduce the side-effects and serious interactions. Further improvement occurred with the development of compounds (moclobemide and toloxatone) that not only are selective but cause reversible MAO-A inhibition and a reduction in dietary and drug interactions. Moclobemide, was the first reversible inhibitor of MAO-A to enter widespread clinical practice.

A transdermal patch form of the MAOI selegiline, called Emsam, was approved for use in depression by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on 28 February 2006.

Medical Uses

MAOIs have been found to be effective in the treatment of panic disorder with agoraphobia, social phobia, atypical depression or mixed anxiety disorder and depression, bulimia, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as borderline personality disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). MAOIs appear to be particularly effective in the management of bipolar depression according to a retrospective-analysis from 2009. There are reports of MAOI efficacy in OCD, trichotillomania, body dysmorphic disorder, and avoidant personality disorder, but these reports are from uncontrolled case reports.

MAOIs can also be used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease by targeting MAO-B in particular (therefore affecting dopaminergic neurons), as well as providing an alternative for migraine prophylaxis. Inhibition of both MAO-A and MAO-B is used in the treatment of clinical depression and anxiety.

MAOIs appear to be particularly indicated for outpatients with dysthymia complicated by panic disorder or hysteroid dysphoria.

Newer MAOIs such as selegiline (typically used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease) and the reversible MAOI moclobemide provide a safer alternative and are now sometimes used as first-line therapy.

Side Effects

Hypertensive Crisis

People taking MAOIs generally need to change their diets to limit or avoid foods and beverages containing tyramine, which is found in products such as cheese, soy sauce, and salami. If large amounts of tyramine are consumed, they may suffer a hypertensive crisis, which can be fatal. Examples of foods and beverages with potentially high levels of tyramine include animal liver and fermented substances, such as alcoholic beverages and aged cheeses. Excessive concentrations of tyramine in blood plasma can lead to hypertensive crisis by increasing the release of norepinephrine (NE), which causes blood vessels to constrict by activating alpha-1 adrenergic receptors. Ordinarily, MAO-A would destroy the excess NE; when MAO-A is inhibited, however, NE levels get too high, leading to dangerous increases in blood pressure.

RIMAs are displaced from MAO-A in the presence of tyramine, rather than inhibiting its breakdown in the liver as general MAOIs do. Additionally, MAO-B remains free and continues to metabolise tyramine in the stomach, although this is less significant than the liver action. Thus, RIMAs are unlikely to elicit tyramine-mediated hypertensive crisis; moreover, dietary modifications are not usually necessary when taking a reversible inhibitor of MAO-A (i.e. moclobemide) or low doses of selective MAO-B inhibitors (e.g. selegiline 6 mg/24 hours transdermal patch).

Drug Interactions

The most significant risk associated with the use of MAOIs is the potential for drug interactions with over-the-counter, prescription, or illegally obtained medications, and some dietary supplements (e.g. St. John’s wort, tryptophan). It is vital that a doctor supervise such combinations to avoid adverse reactions. For this reason, many users carry an MAOI-card, which lets emergency medical personnel know what drugs to avoid (e.g. adrenaline (epinephrine) dosage should be reduced by 75%, and duration is extended).

Tryptophan supplements should not be consumed with MAOIs as the potentially fatal serotonin syndrome may result.

MAOIs should not be combined with other psychoactive substances (antidepressants, painkillers, stimulants, including prescribed, OTC and illegally acquired drugs, etc.) except under expert care. Certain combinations can cause lethal reactions, common examples including SSRIs, tricyclics, MDMA, meperidine, tramadol, and dextromethorphan. Drugs that affect the release or reuptake of epinephrine, norepinephrine, or dopamine typically need to be administered at lower doses due to the resulting potentiated and prolonged effect. MAOIs also interact with tobacco-containing products (e.g. cigarettes) and may potentiate the effects of certain compounds in tobacco. This may be reflected in the difficulty of smoking cessation, as tobacco contains naturally occurring MAOI compounds in addition to the nicotine.

While safer than general MAOIs, RIMAs still possess significant and potentially serious drug interactions with many common drugs; in particular, they can cause serotonin syndrome or hypertensive crisis when combined with almost any antidepressant or stimulant, common migraine medications, certain herbs, or most cold medicines (including decongestants, antihistamines, and cough syrup).

Ocular alpha-2 agonists such as brimonidine and apraclonidine are glaucoma medications which reduce intraocular pressure by decreasing aqueous production. These alpha-2 agonists should not be given with oral MAOIs due to the risk of hypertensive crisis.

Withdrawal

Antidepressants including MAOIs have some dependence-producing effects, the most notable one being a discontinuation syndrome, which may be severe especially if MAOIs are discontinued abruptly or too rapidly. The dependence-producing potential of MAOIs or antidepressants in general is not as significant as benzodiazepines, however. Discontinuation symptoms can be managed by a gradual reduction in dosage over a period of weeks, months or years to minimise or prevent withdrawal symptoms.

MAOIs, as with most antidepressant medication, may not alter the course of the disorder in a significant, permanent way, so it is possible that discontinuation can return the patient to the pre-treatment state. This consideration complicates prescribing between a MAOI and a SSRI, because it is necessary to clear the system completely of one drug before starting another. One physician organisation recommends the dose to be tapered down over a minimum of four weeks, followed by a two week washout period. The result is that a depressed patient will have to bear the depression without chemical help during the drug-free interval. This may be preferable to risking the effects of an interaction between the two drugs.

Interactions

The MAOIs are infamous for their numerous drug interactions, including the following kinds of substances:

  • Substances that are metabolised by monoamine oxidase, as they can be boosted by up to several-fold.
  • Substances that increase serotonin, norepinephrine, or dopamine activity, as too much of any of these neurochemicals can result in severe acute consequences, including serotonin syndrome, hypertensive crisis, and psychosis, respectively.

Such substances that can react with MAOIs include:

  • Phenethylamines: 2C-B, mescaline, phenethylamine (PEA), etc.
    • Amphetamines: amphetamine, MDMA, dextroamphetamine, methamphetamine, DOM, etc.
  • Tryptamines: DMT (MAOIs prevent oxidisation of DMT in the digestive tract, which renders it biologically inert. This allows it to be absorbed in the stomach and small intestine, allowing one to experience the effects of DMT by taking it orally i.e. by Ayahuasca. This anti-oxidation effect can also be observed when administering DMT by inhalation, and it can serve to potentiate the length of the experience.)
  • Norepinephrine, and/or dopamine reuptake inhibitors:
    • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): desvenlafaxine, duloxetine, milnacipran, venlafaxine.
    • Norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs): amineptine, bupropion, methylphenidate, nomifensine.
    • Norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (NRIs): atomoxetine, mazindol, reboxetine.
    • Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs): amitriptyline, butriptyline, clomipramine, desipramine, dosulepin, doxepin, imipramine, lofepramine, nortriptyline, protriptyline, trimipramine.
    • Tetracyclic antidepressants (TeCAs): amoxapine, maprotiline.
    • Phenylpiperidine derivative opioids: meperidine/pethidine, tramadol, methadone, fentanyl, dextropropoxyphene, propoxyphene.
    • Others: brompheniramine, chlorpheniramine, cocaine, cyclobenzaprine, dextromethorphan (DXM), ketamine, MDPV, nefazodone, phencyclidine (PCP), pheniramine, sibutramine, trazodone
  • Serotonin, norepinephrine, and/or dopamine releasers: 4-methylaminorex (4-MAR), amphetamine, benzphetamine, cathine, cathinone, diethylcathinone, ephedrine, levmetamfetamine, lisdexamfetamine, MDMA (“Ecstasy”), methamphetamine, pemoline, phendimetrazine, phenethylamine (PEA), phentermine, propylhexedrine, pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, tyramine.
  • Local and general anaesthetic in surgery and dentistry, in particular those containing epinephrine. There is no universally taught or accepted practice regarding dentistry and use of MAOIs such as phenelzine, and therefore it is vital to inform all clinicians, especially dentists, of the potential effect of MAOIs and local anaesthesia. In preparation for dental work, withdrawal from phenelzine is specifically advised; since this takes two weeks, however, it is not always a desirable or practical option. Dentists using local anaesthesia are advised to use a non-epinephrine anaesthetic such as mepivacaine at a level of 3%. Specific attention should be paid to blood pressure during the procedure, and the level of the anaesthetic should be regularly and appropriately topped-up, for non-epinephrine anaesthetics take longer to come into effect and wear off faster. Patients taking phenelzine are advised to notify their psychiatrist prior to any dental treatment.
  • Certain other supplements may exhibit below-therapeutic-level MAOI activity: Hypericum perforatum (“St John’s wort”), inositol, Rhodiola rosea, S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe).
  • Antibiotics such as linezolid.
  • Other monoamine oxidase inhibitors.

Mechanism of Action

MAOIs act by inhibiting the activity of monoamine oxidase, thus preventing the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters and thereby increasing their availability. There are two isoforms of monoamine oxidase, MAO-A and MAO-B. MAO-A preferentially deaminates serotonin, melatonin, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. MAO-B preferentially deaminates phenethylamine and certain other trace amines; in contrast, MAO-A preferentially deaminates other trace amines, like tyramine, whereas dopamine is equally deaminated by both types.

Reversibility

The early MAOIs covalently bound to the monoamine oxidase enzymes, thus inhibiting them irreversibly; the bound enzyme could not function and thus enzyme activity was blocked until the cell made new enzymes. The enzymes turn over approximately every two weeks. A few newer MAOIs, a notable one being moclobemide, are reversible, meaning that they are able to detach from the enzyme to facilitate usual catabolism of the substrate. The level of inhibition in this way is governed by the concentrations of the substrate and the MAOI.

Harmaline found in Peganum harmala, Banisteriopsis caapi, and Passiflora incarnata is a reversible inhibitor of monoamine oxidase A (RIMA).

Selectivity

In addition to reversibility, MAOIs differ by their selectivity of the MAO enzyme subtype. Some MAOIs inhibit both MAO-A and MAO-B equally, other MAOIs have been developed to target one over the other.

MAO-A inhibition reduces the breakdown of primarily serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine; selective inhibition of MAO-A allows for tyramine to be metabolised via MAO-B. Agents that act on serotonin if taken with another serotonin-enhancing agent may result in a potentially fatal interaction called serotonin syndrome or with irreversible and unselective inhibitors (such as older MAOIs), of MAO a hypertensive crisis as a result of tyramine food interactions is particularly problematic with older MAOIs. Tyramine is broken down by MAO-A and MAO-B, therefore inhibiting this action may result in its excessive build-up, so diet must be monitored for tyramine intake.

MAO-B inhibition reduces the breakdown mainly of dopamine and phenethylamine so there are no dietary restrictions associated with this. MAO-B would also metabolize tyramine, as the only differences between dopamine, phenethylamine, and tyramine are two phenylhydroxyl groups on carbons 3 and 4. The 4-OH would not be a steric hindrance to MAO-B on tyramine. Selegiline is selective for MAO-B at low doses, but non-selective at higher doses.

List of MAO Inhibiting Drugs

Marketed MAOIs

  • Nonselective MAO-A/MAO-B inhibitors.
    • Hydrazine (antidepressant).
      • Isocarboxazid (Marplan).
      • Hydracarbazine.
      • Phenelzine (Nardil).
    • Non-hydrazines.
      • Tranylcypromine (Parnate, Jatrosom).
  • Selective MAO-A inhibitors.
    • Bifemelane (Alnert, Celeport) (available in Japan).
    • Moclobemide (Aurorix, Manerix).
    • Pirlindole (Pirazidol) (available in Russia).
  • Selective MAO-B inhibitors.
    • Rasagiline (Azilect).
    • Selegiline (Deprenyl, Eldepryl, Emsam, Zelapar).
    • Safinamide (Xadago).

Linezolid is an antibiotic drug with weak, reversible MAO-inhibiting activity.

Methylene blue, the antidote indicated for drug-induced methemoglobinemia, among a plethora of other off-label uses, is a highly potent, reversible MAO inhibitor.

MAOIs that have been Withdrawn from the Market

  • Nonselective MAO-A/MAO-B inhibitors:
    • Hydrazines.
      • Benmoxin (Nerusil, Neuralex).
      • Iproclozide (Sursum).
      • Iproniazid (Marsilid, Iprozid, Ipronid, Rivivol, Propilniazida) (discontinued worldwide except for France).
      • Mebanazine (Actomol).
      • Nialamide (Niamid).
      • Octamoxin (Ximaol, Nimaol).
      • Pheniprazine (Catron).
      • Phenoxypropazine (Drazine).
      • Pivalylbenzhydrazine (Tersavid).
      • Safrazine (Safra) (discontinued worldwide except for Japan).
    • Non-hydrazines.
      • Caroxazone (Surodil, Timostenil).
  • Selective MAO-A inhibitors:
    • Minaprine (Cantor).
    • Toloxatone (Humoryl).

List of RIMAs

  • Marketed pharmaceuticals:
    • Moclobemide (Aurorix, Manerix).
  • Other pharmaceuticals.
    • Brofaromine (Consonar).
    • Caroxazone (Surodil, Timostenil).
    • Eprobemide (Befol).
    • Methylene blue.
    • Metralindole (Inkazan).
    • Minaprine (Cantor).
    • Pirlindole (Pirazidol).
  • Naturally occurring RIMAs in plants:
    • Curcumin (selectivity for MAO-A and reliability of research on curcumin are disputed).
    • Harmaline.
    • Harmine.
  • Research compounds:
    • Amiflamine (FLA-336).
    • Befloxatone (MD-370,503).
    • Cimoxatone (MD-780,515).
    • Esuprone.
    • Sercloremine (CGP-4718-A).
    • Tetrindole.
    • CX157 (TriRima).

What is Tranylcypromine?

Introduction

Tranylcypromine (sold under the trade name Parnate among others) is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI); more specifically, tranylcypromine acts as nonselective and irreversible inhibitor of the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO).

It is used as an antidepressant and anxiolytic agent in the clinical treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, respectively.

Tranylcypromine is a propylamine formed from the cyclisation of amphetamine’s side chain; therefore, it is classified as a substituted amphetamine.

Brief History

Tranylcypromine was originally developed as an analogue of amphetamine. Although it was first synthesized in 1948, its MAOI action was not discovered until 1959. Precisely because tranylcypromine was not, like isoniazid and iproniazid, a hydrazine derivative, its clinical interest increased enormously, as it was thought it might have a more acceptable therapeutic index than previous MAOIs.

The drug was introduced by Smith, Kline and French in the United Kingdom in 1960, and approved in the United States in 1961. It was withdrawn from the market in February 1964 due to a number of patient deaths involving hypertensive crises with intracranial bleeding. However, it was reintroduced later that year with more limited indications and specific warnings of the risks.

Medical Uses

Tranylcypromine is used to treat major depressive disorder, including atypical depression, especially when there is an anxiety component, typically as a second-line treatment. It is also used in depression that is not responsive to reuptake inhibitor antidepressants, such as the SSRIs, TCAs, or bupropion.

Contraindications

Contraindications include:

  • Porphyria.
  • Cardiovascular or cerebrovascular disease.
  • Pheochromocytoma.
  • Tyramine, found in several foods, is metabolized by MAO. Ingestion and absorption of tyramine causes extensive release of norepinephrine, which can rapidly increase blood pressure to the point of causing hypertensive crisis.
  • Concomitant use of serotonin-enhancing drugs, including SSRIs, serotonergic TCAs, dextromethorphan, and meperidine may cause serotonin syndrome.
  • Concomitant use of MRAs, including fenfluramine, amphetamine, and pseudoephedrine may cause toxicity via serotonin syndrome or hypertensive crisis.
  • L-DOPA given without carbidopa may cause hypertensive crisis.

Dietary Restrictions

Tyramine is a common component in many foods, and is normally rapidly metabolised by MAO-A. Individuals not taking MAOIs may consume at least 2 grams of tyramine in a meal and not experience an increase in blood pressure, whereas those taking MAOIs such as tranylcypromine may experience a sharp increase in blood pressure following consumption of as little as 10 mg of tyramine, which can lead to hypertensive crisis.

Foods containing tyramine include aged cheeses, cured meats, tofu and certain red wines. Some, such as yeast extracts, contain enough tyramine to be potentially fatal in a single serving. Spoiled food is also likely to contain dangerous levels of tyramine.

Adverse Effects

Incidence of Adverse Effects

  • Very common (>10% incidence) adverse effects include:
    • Dizziness secondary to orthostatic hypotension (17%).
  • Common (1-10% incidence) adverse effects include:
    • Tachycardia (5-10%).
    • Hypomania (7%).
    • Paresthesia (5%).
    • Weight loss (2%).
    • Confusion (2%).
    • Dry mouth (2%).
    • Sexual function disorders (2%).
    • Hypertension (1-2 hours after ingestion) (2%).
    • Rash (2%).
    • Urinary retention (2%).
  • Other (unknown incidence) adverse effects include:
    • Increased/decreased appetite.
    • Blood dyscrasias.
    • Chest pain.
    • Diarrhoea.
    • Oedema.
    • Hallucinations.
    • Hyperreflexia.
    • Insomnia.
    • Jaundice.
    • Leg cramps.
    • Myalgia.
    • Palpitations.
    • Sensation of cold.
    • Suicidal ideation.
    • Tremor.

Of note, there has not been found to be a correlation between sex and age below 65 regarding incidence of adverse effects.

Tranylcypromine is not associated with weight gain and has a low risk for hepatotoxicity compared to the hydrazine MAOIs.

It is generally recommended that MAOIs be discontinued prior to anaesthesia; however, this creates a risk of recurrent depression. In a retrospective observational cohort study, patients on tranylcypromine undergoing general anaesthesia had a lower incidence of intraoperative hypotension, while there was no difference between patients not taking an MAOI regarding intraoperative incidence of bradycardia, tachycardia, or hypertension. The use of indirect sympathomimetic drugs or drugs affecting serotonin reuptake, such as meperidine or dextromethorphan poses a risk for hypertension and serotonin syndrome respectively; alternative agents are recommended. Other studies have come to similar conclusions. Pharmacokinetic interactions with anaesthetics are unlikely, given that tranylcypromine is a high-affinity substrate for CYP2A6 and does not inhibit CYP enzymes at therapeutic concentrations.

Tranylcypromine abuse has been reported at doses ranging from 120-600 mg per day. It is thought that higher doses have more amphetamine-like effects and abuse is promoted by the fast onset and short half-life of tranylcypromine.

Cases of suicidal ideation and suicidal behaviours have been reported during tranylcypromine therapy or early after treatment discontinuation.

Symptoms of tranylcypromine overdose are generally more intense manifestations of its usual effects.

Interactions

In addition to contraindicated concomitant medications, tranylcypromine inhibits CYP2A6, which may reduce the metabolism and increase the toxicity of substrates of this enzyme, such as:

  • Dexmedetomidine.
  • Nicotine.
  • TSNAs (found in cured tobacco products, including cigarettes).
  • Valproate.

Norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors prevent neuronal uptake of tyramine and may reduce its pressor effects.

Pharmacology

Pharmacodynamics

Tranylcypromine acts as a nonselective and irreversible inhibitor of monoamine oxidase. Regarding the isoforms of monoamine oxidase, it shows slight preference for the MAOB isoenzyme over MAOA. This leads to an increase in the availability of monoamines, such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, as well as a marked increase in the availability of trace amines, such as tryptamine, octopamine, and phenethylamine. The clinical relevance of increased trace amine availability is unclear.

It may also act as a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor at higher therapeutic doses. Compared to amphetamine, tranylcypromine shows low potency as a dopamine releasing agent, with even weaker potency for norepinephrine and serotonin release.

Tranylcypromine has also been shown to inhibit the histone demethylase, BHC110/LSD1. Tranylcypromine inhibits this enzyme with an IC50 < 2 μM, thus acting as a small molecule inhibitor of histone demethylation with an effect to de-repress the transcriptional activity of BHC110/LSD1 target genes. The clinical relevance of this effect is unknown.

Tranylcypromine has been found to inhibit CYP46A1 at nanomolar concentrations. The clinical relevance of this effect is unknown.

Pharmacokinetics

Tranylcypromine reaches its maximum concentration (tmax) within 1-2 hours. After a 20 mg dose, plasma concentrations reach at most 50-200 ng/mL. While its half-life is only about 2 hours, its pharmacodynamic effects last several days to weeks due to irreversible inhibition of MAO.

Metabolites of tranylcypromine include 4-hydroxytranylcypromine, N-acetyltranylcypromine, and N-acetyl-4-hydroxytranylcypromine, which are less potent MAO inhibitors than tranylcypromine itself. Amphetamine was once thought to be a metabolite of tranylcypromine, but has not been shown to be.

Tranylcypromine inhibits CYP2A6 at therapeutic concentrations.

Research

Tranylcypromine is known to inhibit LSD1, an enzyme that selectively demethylates two lysines found on histone H3. Genes promoted downstream of LSD1 are involved in cancer cell growth and metastasis, and several tumour cells express high levels of LSD1. Tranylcypromine analogues with more potent and selective LSD1 inhibitory activity are being researched in the potential treatment of cancers.

Tranylcypromine may have neuroprotective properties applicable to the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, similar to the MAO-B inhibitors selegiline and rasagiline. As of 2017, only one clinical trial in Parkinsonian patients has been conducted, which found some improvement initially and only slight worsening of symptoms after a 1.5 year follow-up.

What is Serotonin Syndrome?

Introduction

Serotonin syndrome (SS) is a group of symptoms that may occur with the use of certain serotonergic medications or drugs.

Not to be confused with Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome.

The degree of symptoms can range from mild to severe, including a potentiality of death. Symptoms in mild cases include high blood pressure and a fast heart rate; usually without a fever. Symptoms in moderate cases include high body temperature, agitation, increased reflexes, tremor, sweating, dilated pupils, and diarrhoea. In severe cases body temperature can increase to greater than 41.1 °C (106.0 °F). Complications may include seizures and extensive muscle breakdown.

Serotonin syndrome is typically caused by the use of two or more serotonergic medications or drugs. This may include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI), monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), amphetamines, pethidine (meperidine), tramadol, dextromethorphan, buspirone, L-tryptophan, 5-HTP, St. John’s wort, triptans, ecstasy (MDMA), metoclopramide, or cocaine. It occurs in about 15% of SSRI overdoses. It is a predictable consequence of excess serotonin on the central nervous system (CNS). Onset of symptoms is typically within a day of the extra serotonin.

Diagnosis is based on a person’s symptoms and history of medication use. Other conditions that can produce similar symptoms such as neuroleptic malignant syndrome, malignant hyperthermia, anticholinergic toxicity, heat stroke, and meningitis should be ruled out. No laboratory tests can confirm the diagnosis.

Initial treatment consists of discontinuing medications which may be contributing. In those who are agitated, benzodiazepines may be used. If this is not sufficient, a serotonin antagonist such as cyproheptadine may be used. In those with a high body temperature active cooling measures may be needed. The number of cases of serotonin syndrome that occur each year is unclear. With appropriate treatment the risk of death is less than one percent. The high-profile case of Libby Zion, who is generally accepted to have died from serotonin syndrome, resulted in changes to graduate medical education in New York State.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptom onset is usually rapid, often occurring within minutes of elevated serotonin levels. Serotonin syndrome encompasses a wide range of clinical findings. Mild symptoms may consist of increased heart rate, shivering, sweating, dilated pupils, myoclonus (intermittent jerking or twitching), as well as overresponsive reflexes. However, many of these symptoms may be side effects of the drug or drug interaction causing excessive levels of serotonin; not an effect of elevated serotonin itself. Tremor is a common side effect of MDMA’s action on dopamine, whereas hyperreflexia is symptomatic of exposure to serotonin agonists. Moderate intoxication includes additional abnormalities such as hyperactive bowel sounds, high blood pressure and hyperthermia; a temperature as high as 40 °C (104 °F). The overactive reflexes and clonus in moderate cases may be greater in the lower limbs than in the upper limbs. Mental changes include hypervigilance or insomnia and agitation. Severe symptoms include severe increases in heart rate and blood pressure that may lead to shock. Temperature may rise to above 41.1 °C (106.0 °F) in life-threatening cases. Other abnormalities include metabolic acidosis, rhabdomyolysis, seizures, kidney failure, and disseminated intravascular coagulation; these effects usually arising as a consequence of hyperthermia.

The symptoms are often described as a clinical triad of abnormalities:

  • Cognitive effects: headache, agitation, hypomania, mental confusion, hallucinations, coma.
  • Autonomic effects: shivering, sweating, hyperthermia, vasoconstriction, tachycardia, nausea, diarrhoea.
  • Somatic effects: myoclonus (muscle twitching), hyperreflexia (manifested by clonus), tremor.

Cause

A large number of medications and street drugs can cause serotonin syndrome when taken alone at high doses or in combination with other serotonergic drugs. The table below lists some of these drugs.

ClassDrugs
AntidepressantsMAOIs, TCAs, SSRIs, SNRIs, nefazodone, and trazodone.
OpioidsDextropropoxyphene, tramadol, tapentadol, pethidine (meperidine), fentanyl, pentazocine, buprenorphine oxycodone, and hydrocodone.
Central Nervous System StimulantsMDMA, MDA, methamphetamine, lisdexamfetamine, amphetamine, phentermine, amfepramone (diethylpropion), serotonin releasing agents like hallucinogenic substituted amphetamines, sibutramine, methylphenidate, and cocaine.
5-HT1 AgonistsTriptans
Psychedelics5-Methoxy-diisopropyltryptamine, alpha-methyltryptamine, and LSD.
HerbsSt John’s Wort, Syrian rue, Panax ginseng, Nutmeg, and Yohimbe.
OthersTryptophan, L-Dopa, valproate, buspirone, lithium, linezolid, dextromethorphan, 5-hydroxytryptophan, chlorpheniramine, risperidone, olanzapine, ondansetron, granisetron, metoclopramide, ritonavir, and metaxalone.

Many cases of serotonin toxicity occur in people who have ingested drug combinations that synergistically increase synaptic serotonin. It may also occur due to an overdose of a single serotonergic agent. The combination of MAOIs with precursors such as L-tryptophan or 5-HTP pose a particularly acute risk of life-threatening serotonin syndrome. The case of combination of MAOIs with tryptamine agonists (commonly known as ayahuasca) can present similar dangers as their combination with precursors, but this phenomenon has been described in general terms as the “cheese effect”. Many MAOIs irreversibly inhibit monoamine oxidase. It can take at least four weeks for this enzyme to be replaced by the body in the instance of irreversible inhibitors. With respect to tricyclic antidepressants only clomipramine and imipramine have a risk of causing SS.

Many medications may have been incorrectly thought to cause serotonin syndrome. For example, some case reports have implicated atypical antipsychotics in serotonin syndrome, but it appears based on their pharmacology that they are unlikely to cause the syndrome. It has also been suggested that mirtazapine has no significant serotonergic effects, and is therefore not a dual action drug. Bupropion has also been suggested to cause serotonin syndrome, although as there is no evidence that it has any significant serotonergic activity, it is thought unlikely to produce the syndrome. In 2006 the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert suggesting that the combined use of SSRIs or SNRIs and triptan medications or sibutramine could potentially lead to severe cases of serotonin syndrome. This has been disputed by other researchers as none of the cases reported by the FDA met the Hunter criteria for serotonin syndrome. The condition has however occurred in surprising clinical situations, and because of phenotypic variations among individuals, it has been associated with unexpected drugs, including mirtazapine.

The relative risk and severity of serotonergic side effects and serotonin toxicity, with individual drugs and combinations, is complex. Serotonin syndrome has been reported in patients of all ages, including the elderly, children, and even newborn infants due to in utero exposure. The serotonergic toxicity of SSRIs increases with dose, but even in over-dose it is insufficient to cause fatalities from serotonin syndrome in healthy adults. Elevations of central nervous system serotonin will typically only reach potentially fatal levels when drugs with different mechanisms of action are mixed together. Various drugs, other than SSRIs, also have clinically significant potency as serotonin reuptake inhibitors, (e.g. tramadol, amphetamine, and MDMA) and are associated with severe cases of the syndrome.

Although the most significant health risk associated with opioid overdoses is respiratory depression, it is still possible for an individual to develop serotonin syndrome from certain opioids without the loss of consciousness. However, most cases of opioid-related serotonin syndrome involve the concurrent use of a serotergenic drug such as antidepressants. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon for individuals taking opioids to also be taking antidepressants due to the comorbidity of pain and depression.

Cases where opioids alone are the cause of serotonin syndrome are typically seen with tramadol, because of its dual mechanism as a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor. Serotonin syndrome caused by tramadol can be particularly problematic if an individual taking the drug is unaware of the risks associated with it and attempts to self-medicate symptoms such as headache, agitation, and tremors with more opioids, further exacerbating the condition.

Pathophysiology

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in multiple complex biological processes including aggression, pain, sleep, appetite, anxiety, depression, migraine, and vomiting. In humans the effects of excess serotonin were first noted in 1960 in patients receiving a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) and tryptophan. The syndrome is caused by increased serotonin in the central nervous system. It was originally suspected that agonism of 5-HT1A receptors in central grey nuclei and the medulla was responsible for the development of the syndrome. Further study has determined that overstimulation of primarily the 5-HT2A receptors appears to contribute substantially to the condition. The 5-HT1A receptor may still contribute through a pharmacodynamic interaction in which increased synaptic concentrations of a serotonin agonist saturate all receptor subtypes. Additionally, noradrenergic CNS hyperactivity may play a role as CNS norepinephrine concentrations are increased in serotonin syndrome and levels appear to correlate with the clinical outcome. Other neurotransmitters may also play a role; NMDA receptor antagonists and GABA have been suggested as affecting the development of the syndrome. Serotonin toxicity is more pronounced following supra-therapeutic doses and overdoses, and they merge in a continuum with the toxic effects of overdose.

Spectrum Concept

A postulated “spectrum concept” of serotonin toxicity emphasises the role that progressively increasing serotonin levels play in mediating the clinical picture as side effects merge into toxicity. The dose-effect relationship is the effects of progressive elevation of serotonin, either by raising the dose of one drug, or combining it with another serotonergic drug which may produce large elevations in serotonin levels. Some experts prefer the terms serotonin toxicity or serotonin toxidrome, to more accurately reflect that it is a form of poisoning.

Diagnosis

There is no specific test for serotonin syndrome. Diagnosis is by symptom observation and investigation of the person’s history. Several criteria have been proposed. The first evaluated criteria were introduced in 1991 by Harvey Sternbach. Researchers later developed the Hunter Toxicity Criteria Decision Rules, which have better sensitivity and specificity, 84% and 97%, respectively, when compared with the gold standard of diagnosis by a medical toxicologist. As of 2007, Sternbach’s criteria were still the most commonly used.

The most important symptoms for diagnosing serotonin syndrome are tremor, extreme aggressiveness, akathisia, or clonus (spontaneous, inducible and ocular). Physical examination of the patient should include assessment of deep-tendon reflexes and muscle rigidity, the dryness of the mucosa of the mouth, the size and reactivity of the pupils, the intensity of bowel sounds, skin colour, and the presence or absence of sweating. The patient’s history also plays an important role in diagnosis, investigations should include inquiries about the use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, illicit substances, and dietary supplements, as all these agents have been implicated in the development of serotonin syndrome. To fulfil the Hunter Criteria, a patient must have taken a serotonergic agent and meet one of the following conditions:

  • Spontaneous clonus, or
  • Inducible clonus plus agitation or diaphoresis, or
  • Ocular clonus plus agitation or diaphoresis, or
  • Tremor plus hyperreflexia, or
  • Hypertonism plus temperature > 38 °C (100 °F) plus ocular clonus or inducible clonus.

Differential Diagnosis

Serotonin toxicity has a characteristic picture which is generally hard to confuse with other medical conditions, but in some situations it may go unrecognized because it may be mistaken for a viral illness, anxiety disorders, neurological disorder, anticholinergic poisoning, sympathomimetic toxicity, or worsening psychiatric condition. The condition most often confused with serotonin syndrome is neuroleptic malignant syndrome (NMS). The clinical features of neuroleptic malignant syndrome and serotonin syndrome share some features which can make differentiating them difficult. In both conditions, autonomic dysfunction and altered mental status develop. However, they are actually very different conditions with different underlying dysfunction (serotonin excess vs dopamine blockade). Both the time course and the clinical features of NMS differ significantly from those of serotonin toxicity. Serotonin toxicity has a rapid onset after the administration of a serotonergic drug and responds to serotonin blockade such as drugs like chlorpromazine and cyproheptadine. Dopamine receptor blockade (NMS) has a slow onset, typically evolves over several days after administration of a neuroleptic drug, and responds to dopamine agonists such as bromocriptine.

Differential diagnosis may become difficult in patients recently exposed to both serotonergic and neuroleptic drugs. Bradykinesia and extrapyramidal “lead pipe” rigidity are classically present in NMS, whereas serotonin syndrome causes hyperkinesia and clonus; these distinct symptoms can aid in differentiation.

Management

Management is based primarily on stopping the usage of the precipitating drugs, the administration of serotonin antagonists such as cyproheptadine, and supportive care including the control of agitation, the control of autonomic instability, and the control of hyperthermia. Additionally, those who ingest large doses of serotonergic agents may benefit from gastrointestinal decontamination with activated charcoal if it can be administered within an hour of overdose. The intensity of therapy depends on the severity of symptoms. If the symptoms are mild, treatment may only consist of discontinuation of the offending medication or medications, offering supportive measures, giving benzodiazepines for myoclonus, and waiting for the symptoms to resolve. Moderate cases should have all thermal and cardiorespiratory abnormalities corrected and can benefit from serotonin antagonists. The serotonin antagonist cyproheptadine is the recommended initial therapy, although there have been no controlled trials demonstrating its efficacy for serotonin syndrome. Despite the absence of controlled trials, there are a number of case reports detailing apparent improvement after people have been administered cyproheptadine. Animal experiments also suggest a benefit from serotonin antagonists. Cyproheptadine is only available as tablets and therefore can only be administered orally or via a nasogastric tube; it is unlikely to be effective in people administered activated charcoal and has limited use in severe cases. Cyproheptadine can be stopped when the person is no longer experiencing symptoms and the half life of serotonergic medications already passed.

Additional pharmacological treatment for severe case includes administering atypical antipsychotic drugs with serotonin antagonist activity such as olanzapine. Critically ill people should receive the above therapies as well as sedation or neuromuscular paralysis. People who have autonomic instability such as low blood pressure require treatment with direct-acting sympathomimetics such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, or phenylephrine.[6] Conversely, hypertension or tachycardia can be treated with short-acting antihypertensive drugs such as nitroprusside or esmolol; longer acting drugs such as propranolol should be avoided as they may lead to hypotension and shock. The cause of serotonin toxicity or accumulation is an important factor in determining the course of treatment. Serotonin is catabolized by monoamine oxidase A in the presence of oxygen, so if care is taken to prevent an unsafe spike in body temperature or metabolic acidosis, oxygenation will assist in dispatching the excess serotonin. The same principle applies to alcohol intoxication. In cases of serotonin syndrome caused by monoamine oxidase inhibitors oxygenation will not help to dispatch serotonin. In such instances, hydration is the main concern until the enzyme is regenerated.

Agitation

Specific treatment for some symptoms may be required. One of the most important treatments is the control of agitation due to the extreme possibility of injury to the person themselves or caregivers, benzodiazepines should be administered at first sign of this. Physical restraints are not recommended for agitation or delirium as they may contribute to mortality by enforcing isometric muscle contractions that are associated with severe lactic acidosis and hyperthermia. If physical restraints are necessary for severe agitation they must be rapidly replaced with pharmacological sedation. The agitation can cause a large amount of muscle breakdown. This breakdown can cause severe damage to the kidneys through a condition called rhabdomyolysis.

Hyperthermia

Treatment for hyperthermia includes reducing muscle overactivity via sedation with a benzodiazepine. More severe cases may require muscular paralysis with vecuronium, intubation, and artificial ventilation. Suxamethonium is not recommended for muscular paralysis as it may increase the risk of cardiac dysrhythmia from hyperkalaemia associated with rhabdomyolysis. Antipyretic agents are not recommended as the increase in body temperature is due to muscular activity, not a hypothalamic temperature set point abnormality.

Prognosis

Upon the discontinuation of serotonergic drugs, most cases of serotonin syndrome resolve within 24 hours, although in some cases delirium may persist for a number of days. Symptoms typically persist for a longer time frame in patients taking drugs which have a long elimination half-life, active metabolites, or a protracted duration of action.

Cases have reported persisting chronic symptoms, and antidepressant discontinuation may contribute to ongoing features. Following appropriate medical management, serotonin syndrome is generally associated with a favourable prognosis.

Epidemiology

Epidemiological studies of serotonin syndrome are difficult as many physicians are unaware of the diagnosis or they may miss the syndrome due to its variable manifestations. In 1998 a survey conducted in England found that 85% of the general practitioners that had prescribed the antidepressant nefazodone were unaware of serotonin syndrome. The incidence may be increasing as a larger number of pro-serotonergic drugs (drugs which increase serotonin levels) are now being used in clinical practice. One post-marketing surveillance study identified an incidence of 0.4 cases per 1000 patient-months for patients who were taking nefazodone. Additionally, around 14 to 16 percent of persons who overdose on SSRIs are thought to develop serotonin syndrome.

Notable Cases

The most widely recognised example of serotonin syndrome was the death of Libby Zion in 1984. Zion was a freshman at Bennington College at her death on 05 March 1984, at age 18. She died within 8 hours of her emergency admission to the New York Hospital Cornell Medical Centre. She had an ongoing history of depression, and came to the Manhattan hospital on the evening of 04 March 1984, with a fever, agitation and “strange jerking motions” of her body. She also seemed disoriented at times. The emergency room physicians were unable to diagnose her condition definitively but admitted her for hydration and observation. Her death was caused by a combination of pethidine and phenelzine. A medical intern prescribed the pethidine. The case influenced graduate medical education and residency work hours. Limits were set on working hours for medical postgraduates, commonly referred to as interns or residents, in hospital training programmes, and they also now require closer senior physician supervision.

What is Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome?

Introduction

Antidepressant discontinuation syndrome (also known antidepressant withdrawal syndrome or SSRI discontinuation syndrome), is a condition that can occur following the interruption, reduction, or discontinuation of antidepressant medication following its continuous use of at least a month.

The symptoms may include flu-like symptoms, trouble sleeping, nausea, poor balance, sensory changes, anxiety, and depression. The problem usually begins within three days and may last for several months. Rarely psychosis may occur.

A discontinuation syndrome can occur after stopping any antidepressant including selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs). The risk is greater among those who have taken the medication for longer and when the medication in question has a short half-life. The underlying reason for its occurrence is unclear. The diagnosis is based on the symptoms.

Methods of prevention include gradually decreasing the dose among those who wish to stop, though it is possible for symptoms to occur with tapering. Treatment may include restarting the medication and slowly decreasing the dose. People may also be switched to the long acting antidepressant fluoxetine which can then be gradually decreased.

Approximately 20-50% of people who suddenly stop an antidepressant develop an antidepressant discontinuation syndrome. The condition is generally not serious, though about half of people with symptoms describe them as severe. Some restart antidepressants due to the severity of the symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms

People with antidepressant discontinuation syndrome have been on an antidepressant for at least four weeks and have recently stopped taking the medication, whether abruptly, after a fast taper, or each time the medication is reduced on a slow taper. Commonly reported symptoms include flu-like symptoms (nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches, sweating) and sleep disturbances (insomnia, nightmares, constant sleepiness). Sensory and movement disturbances have also been reported, including imbalance, tremors, vertigo, dizziness, and electric-shock-like experiences in the brain, often described by people who have them as “brain zaps”. These “brain zaps” have been described as an electric shock felt in the skull, potentially triggered by lateral eye movement, and at times accompanied by vertigo, pain, or dissociative symptoms. Some individuals consider it as a pleasant experience akin to an orgasm, however it is more often reported as an unpleasant experience that interferes with daily function. Mood disturbances such as dysphoria, anxiety, or agitation are also reported, as are cognitive disturbances such as confusion and hyperarousal.

In cases associated with sudden discontinuation of MAO inhibitors, acute psychosis has been observed. Over fifty symptoms have been reported.

A 2009 Advisory Committee to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that online anecdotal reports of discontinuation syndrome related to duloxetine included severe symptoms and exceeded prevalence of both paroxetine and venlafaxine reports by over 250% (although acknowledged this may have been influenced by duloxetine being a much newer drug). It also found that the safety information provided by the manufacturer not only neglected important information about managing discontinuation syndrome, but also explicitly advised against opening capsules, a practice required to gradually taper dosage.

Duration

Most cases of discontinuation syndrome may last between one and four weeks and resolve on their own. Occasionally symptoms can last up to one year. They typically resolve within a day of restoring the medication. Paroxetine and venlafaxine seem to be particularly difficult to discontinue, and prolonged withdrawal syndrome (post-acute-withdrawal syndrome, or PAWS) lasting over 18 months has been reported with paroxetine.

Mechanism

The underlying reason for its occurrence is unclear, though the syndrome appears similar to withdrawal from other psychotropic drugs such as benzodiazepines.

Prevention and Treatment

In some cases, withdrawal symptoms may be prevented by taking medication as directed, and when discontinuing, doing so gradually, although symptoms may appear while tapering. When discontinuing an antidepressant with a short half-life, switching to a drug with a longer half-life (e.g. fluoxetine or citalopram) and then tapering, and eventually discontinuing, from that drug can decrease the severity of symptoms in some cases.

Treatment is dependent on the severity of the discontinuation reaction and whether or not further antidepressant treatment is warranted. In cases where further antidepressant treatment is prescribed, then the only option suggested may be restarting the antidepressant. If antidepressants are no longer required, treatment depends on symptom severity. If symptoms of discontinuation are severe, or do not respond to symptom management, the antidepressant can be reinstated and then withdrawn more cautiously, or by switching to a drug with a longer half life, (such as Prozac), and then tapering and discontinuing that drug. In severe cases, hospitalisation may be required.

Pregnancy and Newborns

Antidepressants, including SSRIs, can cross the placenta and have the potential to affect the foetus and newborn, including an increased chance of miscarriage, presenting a dilemma for pregnant women to decide whether to continue to take antidepressants at all, or if they do, considering if tapering and discontinuing during pregnancy could have a protective effect for the newborn.

Postnatal adaptation syndrome (PNAS) (originally called “neonatal behavioural syndrome”, “poor neonatal adaptation syndrome”, or “neonatal withdrawal syndrome”) was first noticed in 1973 in newborns of mothers taking antidepressants; symptoms in the infant include irritability, rapid breathing, hypothermia, and blood sugar problems. The symptoms usually develop from birth to days after delivery and usually resolve within days or weeks of delivery.

Culture and History

Antidepressant discontinuation symptoms were first reported with imipramine, the first tricyclic antidepressant (TCA), in the late 1950s, and each new class of antidepressants has brought reports of similar conditions, including monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), SSRIs, and SNRIs. As of 2001, at least 21 different antidepressants, covering all the major classes, were known to cause discontinuation syndromes. The problem has been poorly studied, and most of the literature has been case reports or small clinical studies; incidence is hard to determine and controversial.

With the explosion of use and interest in SSRIs in the late 1980s and early 1990s, focused especially on Prozac, interest grew as well in discontinuation syndromes. Some of the symptoms emerged from discussion boards where people with depression discussed their experiences with the disease and their medications; “brain zaps” or “brain shivers” was one symptom that emerged via these websites.

Heightened media attention and continuing public concerns led to the formation of an expert group on the safety of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors in England, to evaluate all the research available prior to 2004. The group determined that the incidence of discontinuation symptoms are between 5% and 49%, depending on the particular SSRI, the length of time on the medicine and abrupt versus gradual cessation.

With the lack of a definition based on consensus criteria for the syndrome, a panel met in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1997 to form a draft definition, which other groups continued to refine.

In the late 1990s, some investigators thought that the fact that symptoms emerged when antidepressants were discontinued might mean that antidepressants were causing addiction, and some used the term “withdrawal syndrome” to describe the symptoms. While people taking antidepressants do not commonly exhibit drug-seeking behaviour, stopping antidepressants leads to similar symptoms as found in drug withdrawal from benzodiazapines, and other psychotropic drugs. As such, some researchers advocate the term withdrawal over discontinuation, to communicate the similar physiological dependence and negative outcomes. Due to pressure from pharmaceutical companies who make anti-depressants, the term “withdrawal syndrome” is no longer used by drug makers, and thus, most doctors, due to concerns that they may be compared to other drugs more commonly associated with withdrawal.

2013 Class Action Lawsuit

In 2013, a proposed class action lawsuit, Jennifer L Saavedra v. Eli Lilly and Company, was brought against Eli Lilly claiming that the Cymbalta label omitted important information about “brain zaps” and other symptoms upon cessation. Eli Lilly moved for dismissal per the “learned intermediary doctrine” as the doctors prescribing the drug were warned of the potential problems and are an intermediary medical judgement between Lilly and patients; in December 2013 Lilly’s motion to dismiss was denied.

Research

The mechanisms of antidepressant withdrawal syndrome have not yet been conclusively identified. The leading hypothesis is that after the antidepressant is discontinued, there is a temporary, but in some cases, long-lasting, deficiency in the brain of one or more essential neurotransmitters that regulate mood, such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid, and since neurotransmitters are an interrelated system, dysregulation of one affects the others.

What is Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome?

Introduction

Antidepressant discontinuation syndrome, also known as antidepressant withdrawal syndrome, is a condition that can occur following the interruption, reduction, or discontinuation of antidepressant medication that was taken continuously for at least one month. The symptoms may include flu-like symptoms, trouble sleeping, nausea, poor balance, sensory changes, anxiety, and depression. The problem usually begins within three days and may last for several months. Rarely psychosis may occur.

A discontinuation syndrome can occur after stopping any antidepressant including selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs). The risk is greater among those who have taken the medication for longer and when the medication in question has a short half-life. The underlying reason for its occurrence is unclear. The diagnosis is based on the symptoms.

Methods of prevention include gradually decreasing the dose among those who wish to stop, though it is possible for symptoms to occur with tapering. Treatment may include restarting the medication and slowly decreasing the dose. People may also be switched to the long acting antidepressant fluoxetine which can then be gradually decreased.

Approximately 20-50% of people who suddenly stop an antidepressant develop an antidepressant discontinuation syndrome. The condition is generally not serious, though about half of people with symptoms describe them as severe. Some restart antidepressants due to the severity of the symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms

People with antidepressant discontinuation syndrome have been on an antidepressant for at least four weeks and have recently stopped taking the medication, whether abruptly, after a fast taper, or each time the medication is reduced on a slow taper. Commonly reported symptoms include flu-like symptoms (nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches, sweating) and sleep disturbances (insomnia, nightmares, constant sleepiness). Sensory and movement disturbances have also been reported, including imbalance, tremors, vertigo, dizziness, and electric-shock-like experiences in the brain, often described by people who have them as “brain zaps”. These “brain zaps” are often described as feeling like an unsettling shiver or shock sensation that starts in the head and moves quickly through the entire body. Mood disturbances such as dysphoria, anxiety, or agitation are also reported, as are cognitive disturbances such as confusion and hyperarousal.

In cases associated with sudden discontinuation of MAO inhibitors, acute psychosis has been observed. Over fifty symptoms have been reported.

A 2009 Advisory Committee to the FDA found that online anecdotal reports of discontinuation syndrome related to duloxetine included severe symptoms and exceeded prevalence of both paroxetine and venlafaxine reports by over 250% (although acknowledged this may have been influenced by duloxetine being a much newer drug). It also found that the safety information provided by the manufacturer not only neglected important information about managing discontinuation syndrome, but also explicitly advised against opening capsules, a practice required to gradually taper dosage.

Duration

Most cases of discontinuation syndrome may last between one and four weeks and resolve on their own. Occasionally symptoms can last up to one year. They typically resolve within a day of restoring the medication. Paroxetine and venlafaxine seem to be particularly difficult to discontinue, and prolonged withdrawal syndrome (post-acute-withdrawal syndrome, or PAWS) lasting over 18 months has been reported with paroxetine.

Mechanism

The underlying reason for its occurrence is unclear, though the syndrome appears similar to withdrawal from other psychotropic drugs such as benzodiazepines.

Prevention and Treatment

In some cases, withdrawal symptoms may be prevented by taking medication as directed, and when discontinuing, doing so gradually, although symptoms may appear while tapering. When discontinuing an antidepressant with a short half-life, switching to a drug with a longer half-life (e.g. fluoxetine or citalopram) and then tapering, and eventually discontinuing, from that drug can decrease the severity of symptoms in some cases.

Treatment is dependent on the severity of the discontinuation reaction and whether or not further antidepressant treatment is warranted. In cases where further antidepressant treatment is prescribed, then the only option suggested may be restarting the antidepressant. If antidepressants are no longer required, treatment depends on symptom severity. If symptoms of discontinuation are severe, or do not respond to symptom management, the antidepressant can be reinstated and then withdrawn more cautiously, or by switching to a drug with a longer half life, (such as Prozac), and then tapering and discontinuing that drug. In severe cases, hospitalisation may be required.

Pregnancy and Newborns

Antidepressants, including SSRIs, can cross the placenta and have the potential to affect the foetus and newborn, including an increased chance of miscarriage, presenting a dilemma for pregnant women to decide whether to continue to take antidepressants at all, or if they do, considering if tapering and discontinuing during pregnancy could have a protective effect for the newborn.

Postnatal adaptation syndrome (PNAS) (originally called “neonatal behavioural syndrome”, “poor neonatal adaptation syndrome”, or “neonatal withdrawal syndrome”) was first noticed in 1973 in newborns of mothers taking antidepressants; symptoms in the infant include irritability, rapid breathing, hypothermia, and blood sugar problems. The symptoms usually develop from birth to days after delivery and usually resolve within days or weeks of delivery.

Culture and History

Antidepressant discontinuation symptoms were first reported with imipramine, the first tricyclic antidepressant (TCA), in the late 1950s, and each new class of antidepressants has brought reports of similar conditions, including monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), SSRIs, and SNRIs. As of 2001, at least 21 different antidepressants, covering all the major classes, were known to cause discontinuation syndromes. The problem has been poorly studied, and most of the literature has been case reports or small clinical studies; incidence is hard to determine and controversial.

With the explosion of use and interest in SSRIs in the late 1980s and early 1990s, focused especially on Prozac, interest grew as well in discontinuation syndromes. Some of the symptoms emerged from discussion boards where people with depression discussed their experiences with the disease and their medications; “brain zaps” or “brain shivers” was one symptom that emerged via these websites.

Heightened media attention and continuing public concerns led to the formation of an expert group on the safety of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors in England, to evaluate all the research available prior to 2004. The group determined that the incidence of discontinuation symptoms are between 5% and 49%, depending on the particular SSRI, the length of time on the medicine and abrupt versus gradual cessation.

With the lack of a definition based on consensus criteria for the syndrome, a panel met in Phoenix, Arizona in 1997 to form a draft definition, which other groups continued to refine.

In the late 1990s, some investigators thought that the fact that symptoms emerged when antidepressants were discontinued might mean that antidepressants were causing addiction, and some used the term “withdrawal syndrome” to describe the symptoms. While people taking antidepressants do not commonly exhibit drug-seeking behaviour, stopping antidepressants leads to similar symptoms as found in drug withdrawal from benzodiazapines, and other psychotropic drugs. As such, some researchers advocate the term withdrawal over discontinuation, to communicate the similar physiological dependence and negative outcomes. Due to pressure from pharmaceutical companies who make anti-depressants, the term “withdrawal syndrome” is no longer used by drug makers, and thus, most doctors, due to concerns that they may be compared to other drugs more commonly associated with withdrawal.

2013 Class Action Lawsuit

In 2013, a proposed class action lawsuit, Jennifer L Saavedra v. Eli Lilly and Company, was brought against Eli Lilly claiming that the Cymbalta label omitted important information about “brain zaps” and other symptoms upon cessation. Eli Lilly moved for dismissal per the “learned intermediary doctrine” as the doctors prescribing the drug were warned of the potential problems and are an intermediary medical judgment between Lilly and patients; in December 2013 Lilly’s motion to dismiss was denied.

Research

The mechanisms of antidepressant withdrawal syndrome have not yet been conclusively identified. The leading hypothesis is that after the antidepressant is discontinued, there is a temporary, but in some cases, long-lasting, deficiency in the brain of one or more essential neurotransmitters that regulate mood, such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid, and since neurotransmitters are an interrelated system, dysregulation of one affects the others.