A psychiatrist’s perspective on the digital pill

One of my readers, Natalie, wondered about my thoughts about the digital pill.

My initial reactions were similar to several of those who were interviewed for the article. The digital pill, which provides electronic information to confirm whether someone has ingested the medication, has great potential to become a tool of coercion. Aripiprazole (Abilify) is classified as an antipsychotic medication, which is often prescribed to people who have beliefs that machines and other surveillance tools are in their bodies. Why would the nascent technology of a digital pill make its debut for this population?

I have several other concerns about this digital pill:

1. The purported mechanism of action for aripiprazole (Abilify) involves hand-waving, which is yet another reason why its debut as a digital pill is perplexing. To the manufacturer’s credit, the package insert for aripiprazole is blunt: “The mechanism of action of aripiprazole in schizophrenia or bipolar mania, is unknown.” (Section 12.1.) The explanation in the scientific papers, though, gets those hands waving all over the place (warning: technical language fast approaching):

The development of D2 partial agonists is a logical strategy for the treatment of schizophrenia because the pathophysiologic mechanism of schizophrenia is thought to be based on too much dopamine activity in some regions of the brain and too little dopamine activity in other regions. A D2 partial agonist can act as a functional antagonist in areas of high levels of dopamine, such as the mesolimbic pathway, but not in areas of normal dopamine levels, such as the nigrostriatal and tuberoinfundibular pathways. Thus, a D2 partial agonist is expected to reduce the positive symptoms of schizophrenia without producing movement disorders or elevated prolactin levels. In regions of low dopamine concentration, such as the mesocortical pathway, a D2 partial agonist will show functional agonist activity.

Put into plain language, what all that means is aripiprazole might stimulate specific receptors in one part of the brain, but block those same receptors in other parts of the brain. The concentration of dopamine might determine whether aripiprazole stimulates or blocks those receptors.

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