New Findings Shed Light on the Role of D1 Neurons in Schizophrenia Treatment


Schizophrenia is a chronic mental disorder that affects about 1% of the population worldwide. It is characterized by a range of symptoms, including delusions, hallucinations, disorganized thinking, and negative symptoms such as apathy, social withdrawal, and loss of motivation.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in a variety of brain functions, including movement, motivation, and cognition. In schizophrenia, there is an imbalance in dopamine signaling, with too much dopamine activity in some brain regions and too little in others.

D1 and D2 dopamine receptors

There are two main types of dopamine receptors: D1 and D2. D1 receptors are found mainly in the frontal cortex, while D2 receptors are found mainly in the striatum and limbic system.

D1 receptors are thought to be involved in positive symptoms of schizophrenia, such as delusions and hallucinations. D2 receptors are thought to be involved in negative symptoms of schizophrenia, such as apathy, social withdrawal, and loss of motivation.

Antipsychotic drugs

Antipsychotic drugs are the main treatment for schizophrenia. They work by blocking dopamine receptors. Some antipsychotic drugs block both D1 and D2 receptors, while others block only one type of receptor.

Antipsychotic drugs are effective in reducing positive symptoms of schizophrenia, but they are less effective in reducing negative symptoms. They can also have side effects, such as weight gain, movement disorders, and tardive dyskinesia.

Antipsychotic drugs are a cornerstone in the treatment of schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders. Although their clinical efficacy has been well-established, the precise mechanisms through which these medications exert their therapeutic effects have remained elusive.

One prevailing hypothesis posits that antipsychotics modulate the activity of dopamine receptors in the striatum, a brain region involved in reward and motivation.

However, the striatum comprises two distinct populations of projection neurons, known as D1 and D2 neurons, which express different subtypes of dopamine receptors. Recent research has suggested that antipsychotics may have disparate effects on these two neuronal populations. Yet, the relationship between antipsychotic efficacy and striatal neuron modulation has not been fully elucidated.

A Novel Approach: DREADD Activation and Inhibition

In a groundbreaking study published in Nature Neuroscience, Yun et al. (2023) employed a novel approach to investigate the impact of antipsychotics on D1 and D2 neurons in mice. The researchers utilized a cutting-edge genetic technique called DREADD (designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs) to selectively activate or inhibit D1 or D2 neurons within the striatum. Subsequently, they assessed the behavioral effects of antipsychotics through a battery of tests.

Differential Effects on D1 and D2 Neurons

The findings of Yun et al. revealed a striking contrast in the response of D1 and D2 neurons to antipsychotic treatment. Antipsychotics reduced locomotor activity and stereotypy induced by DREADD activation of D1 neurons but had no discernible effect on D2 neurons.

Moreover, antipsychotics increased social interaction and cognitive performance in mice with DREADD inhibition of D1 neurons while leaving D2 neurons unaffected. These results strongly suggest that the therapeutic effects of antipsychotics are mediated primarily through modulation of D1 rather than D2 neurons in the striatum.

Unraveling Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms

To unravel the underlying molecular and cellular mechanisms responsible for the differential modulation of D1 and D2 neurons by antipsychotics, Yun et al. conducted further investigations.

They discovered that antipsychotics selectively enhanced the expression of a transcription factor known as c-Fos in D1 neurons, but not in D2 neurons.

Furthermore, the researchers found that antipsychotics specifically augmented the synaptic strength of glutamatergic inputs onto D1 neurons while exerting no significant effect on D2 neurons. These crucial findings suggest that antipsychotics induce plasticity changes in D1 neurons that may underlie their observed behavioral effects.

Implications for Schizophrenia Treatment

This pioneering study by Yun et al. provides a remarkable breakthrough in our understanding of the mechanisms of action of antipsychotics within the brain. By highlighting the previously unrecognized role of D1 neurons in mediating antipsychotic efficacy, the research opens up new avenues for the development of more effective and targeted treatments for schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders.

The authors propose that targeting D1 neurons could be a promising strategy to improve treatment outcomes and mitigate side effects associated with current antipsychotic medications.


The study by Yun et al. offers unprecedented insights into the intricate workings of antipsychotic drugs in the brain. By employing innovative techniques to selectively manipulate D1 and D2 neurons in the striatum, the researchers demonstrate that antipsychotics exert their therapeutic effects predominantly through modulation of D1 neurons.

The identification of distinct molecular and cellular changes in D1 neurons following antipsychotic treatment contributes to our understanding of the mechanisms underlying antipsychotic efficacy. These findings hold tremendous promise for the development of more targeted and efficacious treatments for schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders, bringing us closer to improving the lives of individuals affected by these conditions.

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