Clinical Trials for Schizophrenia

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella, MD on May 09, 2022
4 min read

If you or someone you care about has schizophrenia, you might consider participating in a clinical trial to try to come up with a new treatment.

Most people with the disease get a combination of medicine and therapy to manage their symptoms. But you may have to try different antipsychotic drugs to find one that helps you. And those often have serious side effects.

Researchers are working to find safer and more effective treatments. That’s where joining a clinical trial can help.

The first step is to talk to your doctor. You shouldn't change your treatment without checking with them. They can tell you if a new medication or therapy might be good for you. And they might be able to steer you toward a trial in your area.

Other places to look include:

  • This is a searchable database managed by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It lists hundreds of studies on schizophrenia that are looking for participants. And tells you how to contact them.
  • The Center for Information and Study on Clinical Research Participation also has an online tool that lets you search for clinical trials by illness and location.
  • Hospitals, universities, and medical schools. Check the websites of institutions in your area. They may list clinical trials they’re conducting on schizophrenia, or tell you how to contact their research departments.

Even if you don’t have schizophrenia, you might be able to participate in a clinical trial to help people who do. Some studies include what they call “healthy” volunteers. They help researchers see how a treatment affects people who don’t have a particular illness.

  • You’ll speak to someone heading up the study to make sure you qualify. They may need people of a certain age, or a certain stage of illness. Some studies want people willing to change from their current antipsychotic medication. Others want you to continue with what you’re already taking.
  • If you’re eligible, you’ll get detailed information about the study, including the risks and possible benefits. The research team wants to make sure you understand exactly what you’re signing up for before you agree to participate.
  • Once you’re enrolled, you’ll give the researchers information about your health history and which schizophrenia treatment you’ve already had. You may get a physical exam or tests like blood work or a brain scan.
  • During the study, you’ll get whatever treatment is being tested. Or you might get what’s called a placebo or harmless mock treatment. That means you don’t get actual medicine or treatment, so researchers can compare whether the new treatment works better than nothing.
  • You’ll have health checks and tests to measure how the treatment is working. The study may last for weeks or for months. You can leave at any time.

Researchers are working to understand why people get schizophrenia and how it causes symptoms. They’re identifying genes that may be involved, and comparing the brain circuitry and activity of people who have the disease and people who don’t. The goal is to discover new and better ways to treat it.

Here are some things they’re working on.

New drugs. Most drugs used to treat schizophrenia are antipsychotics that work on the brain chemical dopamine. Some have been around for decades. Newer versions work on other brain chemicals, too. They generally treat what are called the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, like hallucinations and delusions. But antipsychotics don’t work in as many as one-third of people with schizophrenia. And the side effects of antipsychotics lead some people to stop taking them.

Researchers are working on drugs that target different processes in the brain, in hopes that they might work better and on more people than traditional antipsychotics. They're also testing medicines that focus on what are called “negative” symptoms of schizophrenia, like social withdrawal and a lack of motivation.

Repurposed drugs. Other trials are looking at whether drugs used to treat a different illness might work against the symptoms of schizophrenia. These medicines have already been proven safe in earlier studies. They include anticonvulsants, anti-inflammatories, antidepressants, and an Alzheimer's drug.

Brain Stimulation. Some people with schizophrenia get electroconvulsive therapy. That’s when an electrical current is passed through your brain to cause a brief seizure. It’s somewhat of a last resort for people who don’t respond to other treatments.

But many studies are looking at milder forms of electric brain stimulation to see if it can help with schizophrenia symptoms like auditory hallucinations (“hearing voices”), negative symptoms like apathy, and thinking and memory problems.

Several different ways are being tested, including:

  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation: A device containing an electromagnetic coil is placed against your forehead and sends magnetic pulses into your brain.
  • Transcranial direct current stimulation: This delivers electrical currents into your brain through two electrodes placed on your scalp.
  • Deep brain stimulation: In this procedure, electrodes are implanted in your brain to deliver electric pulses controlled by a generator sewn inside your chest.

Therapy. Most people with schizophrenia need some kind of counseling and support with daily living. It may include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to work on problems in the way they think, plus training in communication and job skills.

Researchers are testing different ways to help people with schizophrenia overcome common problems like trouble with planning, decision-making, emotional control, social skills, and handling daily tasks.

They’re also exploring how technology can help in schizophrenia treatment, with things like:

  • Computer-based therapy exercises
  • Virtual reality programs to work on job interview and social skills
  • Smartphone apps designed to help people keep up with their treatment and fight symptoms like apathy