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Archives of General Psychiatry

Year: 2009  |  Volume: 66  |  Issue: 7  |  Page No.: 756 - 763

ORIGINAL ARTICLE: N-Acetylcysteine, a Glutamate Modulator, in the Treatment of Trichotillomania: A Double-blind, Placebo-Controlled Study

J. E Grant, B. L Odlaug and S. Won Kim

Abstract

Context  Trichotillomania is characterized by repetitive hair pulling that causes noticeable hair loss. Data on the pharmacologic treatment of trichotillomania are limited to conflicting studies of serotonergic medications. N-acetylcysteine, an amino acid, seems to restore the extracellular glutamate concentration in the nucleus accumbens and, therefore, offers promise in the reduction of compulsive behavior.

Objective  To determine the efficacy and tolerability of N-acetylcysteine in adults with trichotillomania.

Design  Twelve-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.

Setting  Ambulatory care center.

Patients  Fifty individuals with trichotillomania (45 women and 5 men; mean [SD] age, 34.3 [12.1] years).

Interventions  N-acetylcysteine (dosing range, 1200-2400 mg/d) or placebo was administered for 12 weeks.

Main Outcome Measures  Patients were assessed using the Massachusetts General Hospital Hair Pulling Scale, the Clinical Global Impression scale, the Psychiatric Institute Trichotillomania Scale, and measures of depression, anxiety, and psychosocial functioning. Outcomes were examined using analysis of variance modeling analyses and linear regression in an intention-to-treat population.

Results  Patients assigned to receive N-acetylcysteine had significantly greater reductions in hair-pulling symptoms as measured using the Massachusetts General Hospital Hair Pulling Scale (P < .001) and the Psychiatric Institute Trichotillomania Scale (P = .001). Fifty-six percent of patients "much or very much improved" with N-acetylcysteine use compared with 16% taking placebo (P = .003). Significant improvement was initially noted after 9 weeks of treatment.

Conclusions  This study, the first to our knowledge that examines the efficacy of a glutamatergic agent in the treatment of trichotillomania, found that N-acetylcysteine demonstrated statistically significant reductions in trichotillomania symptoms. No adverse events occurred in the N-acetylcysteine group, and N-acetylcysteine was well tolerated. Pharmacologic modulation of the glutamate system may prove to be useful in the control of a range of compulsive behaviors.

Trial Registration  clinicaltrials.gov Identifier: NCT00354770.

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