Understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of clozapine-induced Obsessive Compulsive Symptoms in schizophrenia and its treatment

Mental Health Research PhD Scholarship 2018: Dept of Psychology, Downing St, University of Cambridge

Supervisor: Professor Trevor Robbins


The use of Second Generation Antipsychotic drugs, particularly clozapine, has represented a considerable advance in treating schizophrenia, especially in otherwise treatment resistant patients. However, this drug is associated with negative consequences, including a distressing syndrome of obsessive-compulsive symptoms (OCS) which is little understood. Although the dopamine blocking drug aripiprazole appears to reduce clozapine-associated OCS, why this should work to counter the syndrome is not known. This drug may improve OCS by reducing the activity of a part of the frontal lobes of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex which appears to be over-activated in OCD patients and is implicated in checking behaviour commonly observed in OCS. We plan to better characterise the underlying psychological and brain basis of clozapine-induced OCS and its remediation by aripiprazole. Our ultimate aim would be to provide a predictor or biomarker using EEG methods with behaviour of risk of OCS in early episode patients with schizophrenia to be treated with clozapine.

Research Student: Marjan Biria

Bachelor of Clinical Psychology Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Brussel Belgium. Feb. 2009-Jun. 2013
Thesis: Effects of rumination and worry on working memory performance.

Master of Neuroscience.University of Geneva, Geneva Switzerland. Feb. 2014-Sep. 2015
Thesis: Investigating the EEG biomarkers of schizophrenia in a population with 22q11.2 Deletion syndrome.

Honours and Awards
Highest GPA of the class Master of Neuroscience, University of Geneva, Geneva Switzerland. Feb. 2014-Sep. 2015
First student with the maximum grade of 6 for Statistics and Probability course Feb. 2014-Sep. 2015
Master of Neuroscience, University of Geneva, Geneva Switzerland.
Vahabzadeh Scholarship Sep. 2014-Sep. 2015

Research experience
Research assistant at FBM lab (10% teaching). University of Geneva, Switzerland. Nov.2015-Mar.2017
Intern at Functional Brain Mapping(FBM) lab University of Geneva, Switzerland. Jan.-Sep. 2015
Research: Conducting research about Visual processing in individuals with 22q11-Deletion Syndrome as a model for Schizophrenia.

Intern at Bavelier lab University of Geneva, Switzerland. July-Dec. 2014
Research: Conducting research about the positive and negative effects of video games on behaviour, attention and vision.

Intern at Geneva University Hospitals (HUG): EEG and Epilepsy Unit University of Geneva, Switzerland Feb.-June 2014
Research: Mapping of the language regions in epilepsy patients.

Faculty of Psychology, VUB, Belgium. 2012-2013
Research: Sleep study using polysomnography, preceded and followed by clinical and neuropsychological tests to examine cognitive functioning after a bad or good quality of sleep.

Faculty of Psychology, VUB, Belgium.2012-2013
Research: Cognitive and psychological scale interviews and providing clinical feedback.

Faculty of Psychology, VUB, Belgium. 2011-2012
Research: Performing different clinical and neurological battery tests and diagnosis.

Faculty of Psychology, VUB, Belgium. 2010-2011
Research: Using different Cognitive Assessment Batteries to evaluate the cognitive development in infants.

Teaching experience
Teaching EEG recording and data analysis. University of Geneva, Switzerland. 2015-2016
Statistics private lessons. Geneva, Switzerland. 2014-2015

Submitted for publication after a first round of revision: "Visual processing deficits in 22q11.2Deletion Syndrome "
Authors: Marjan Biria, MSc; Miralena I Tomescu, PhD; Anna Custo, PhD; Lucia M Cantonas, MSc; Kun-Wei Song, B.A., M.D.; Maude Schneider, PhD; Micah M. Murray, PhD, Professor; Stephan Eliez, MD, PhD, Professor; Christoph M Michel, PhD.

Start Date: September 2017

Study Aims: 

Clozapine is one of the most effective second generation anti-psychotics (SGA) in the treatment of schizophrenia but is commonly associated with Obsessive Compulsive Symptoms (OCS), resulting in a negative prognosis [1]. However, the underlying neural and psychological basis of this syndrome and its possible treatment is not understood [2]. This project proposes a multimodal approach combining cognitive, EEG, magnetic resonance imaging and psychopharmacological methods to characterise this important syndrome, define its possible predictors/biomarkers, and test the possible mechanisms of its main treatment via the dopamine D2-receptor agent aripiprazole.

Progress Report Year 2, 2019

During the second year of my PhD I have applied for two ethics applications to the Department of Psychology at Cambridge University and the NHS for our 7T Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS) project to measure GABA and glutamate with a higher accuracy in healthy volunteers and patients with OCD and schizophrenia. The first application was for a pilot study in healthy volunteers to get us started with testing the different parameters. The second one was to test healthy volunteers and OCD patients for the actual study. Both these applications were approved. We still need to submit another separate ethical application for our schizophrenia patients which will be submitted this summer. I have written a first authored clinically oriented paper titled ‘A cross sectional study of impact and clinical risk factors of antipsychotic-induced OCD’. This manuscript was accepted for publication by the European Neuropsychopharmacology journal in June and will be available for Open Access. To pilot my newly developed computer task (that measures checking behaviour and other different aspects of cognition), I tested 30 healthy volunteers, 5 OCD and schizophrenia patients. I have then adapted my task according to the feedback I received and started the recruitment for my behavioural study testing my whole battery in both patients and healthy volunteers. So far, I have tested my whole behavioural battery (including this novel checking task) in 7 healthy volunteers, 11 patients with schizophrenia and 15 OCD patients. In parallel, I have also piloted 21 magnetic resonance spectroscopy scans in healthy volunteers in collaboration with the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre. We plan to complete this pilot study in patients by the end of summer. Once we have analysed the spectroscopy data we will decide if any parameters need to be changed before we start our actual study. We hope to start our 7T MRS project in OCD volunteers in September followed by healthy volunteers. We plan to recruit schizophrenia patients in January after we finish the behavioural study. The picture below shows my next course of action until April 2020.

Progress Report Year 1, 2018

Understanding the neuropsychological mechanisms of clozapine-induced Obsessive Compulsive Symptoms in Schizophrenia

First Year PhD Report (summary) Candidate: Marjan Biria Degree: PhD Psychology

Funded by Mental Health Research UK Supervisor: Professor Trevor W. Robbins

Date: 07/07/2018 

During the first year of my PhD I have applied for two NHS ethics applications to recruit schizophrenia, OCD, and healthy volunteers (separate applications for OCD and schizophrenia patients as they will be recruited from separate trusts). I have also obtained a research passport and two letters of access to recruit patients through the Cambridge and Petersborough Foundation Trust (CPFT, for schizophrenia patients) and the Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (HPFT, for OCD patients). The research passport and the letters of access allowed me to attend the clozapine and OCD clinics on a regular basis and be present during the patients’ consultations with their consultant psychiatrists (Dr Emilio Fernandez and Dr Naomi Fineberg). This has been a great opportunity to spend time with patients outside the research context and understand their problems on a deeper and more personal level. I had also applied for NIHR CRN Portfolio for our study to be advertised in more trusts which was approved as well. This way the trusts that are working with OCD or schizophrenia patients and are interested in our research can contact us and help us with the recruitment. The whole process for all the applications mentioned above took about six months.

While waiting for the ethical approval and before being able to recruit participants, I have completed the following courses: How to Conduct Clinical Research Studies within CPFT, Graduate Core Skills Training, Good Governance, Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS), Mental Capacity Act Module 1: Awareness for Researchers, Mental Capacity Act Module 2: Best Interests Decisions, MRI Safety course and Graduate Methods class. I have also analysed anonymised patients’ data from the clozapine clinic registers about the association of patients’ demographic information and their OCD symptoms induced by clozapine in collaboration with Dr Emilio Fernandez. I am now preparing the results for publication. I have also been helping with an ongoing project in our lab involving MRI scans, which besides being an educational experience for my MRS (Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy) project, will make me a co-author of their publication.

I have developed a computerised task to look at the reactions of our patient groups to positive and negative feedback and whether they will show perseverative responding. I also have developed a second task to measure perseverative repetitions or stereotyped responding which we expect to see in our schizophrenia patients. I have written several Matlab script to extract the data for both tasks and to analyse their outputs.

I have been attending the 7T MRS meetings in University of Cambridge to inform myself more about the technique and build useful connections before we start our 7T MRS project. I was able to gather most people working with the new Siemens 7T MRS scanner (we will be working with) and created a group with whom we can have regular meetings to help each other with our knowledge and experience. At the same time, I am attending the 7T MRS sessions of an ongoing project to learn how to prepare and conduct our project later on this summer. I have examined my test batteries in a group of healthy and OCD volunteers. The healthy volunteers’ findings are presented in the long version of my report, see below, while the OCD results are still being analysed.

First_year_report_MHRUK_MarjanBiria .pdf