A compound found in many foods and energy drinks can decrease symptoms of depression and psychosis, which is where the person loses contact with reality.
In our recent study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, we tested whether supplementing standard treatment with taurine would improve cognition and other mental health symptoms in young people who had experienced their first psychotic episode.
A psychotic episode is an episode of psychosis, an umbrella term that represents a range of severe mental health symptoms. The most notable is a loss of contact with reality where someone perceives things that are not real (known as hallucinations) or holds beliefs not based in reality (known as delusions).
Our results showed people given taurine had significantly improved overall mental health symptoms, including those of psychosis, compared to those given placebo. People given taurine also showed improvement in depression symptoms and overall social and occupational functioning.
People experiencing psychosis commonly have impairments in cognitive function including reduced concentration, memory, and problem solving ability. We found no difference in cognitive function between the group given taurine and placebo.
But taurine was found to be both safe and well tolerated.
Antipsychotic medication is the first line treatment for psychosis, but it is not always effective, with a proportion of patients experiencing ongoing symptoms or unwanted side effects. Because of this, complementary treatment options are greatly needed.
What is taurine?
Taurine is an important compound that naturally occurs in the body. It has various functions, including aiding the function of the brain and cardiovascular system, made up of the heart and blood vessels. Taurine helps protect the brain from inflammation, toxins and protein deficiencies.
It has an inhibitory influence on the activity of the nervous system – the network of nerves and cells that carry signals to and from the brain.
Apart from being present throughout the body, taurine is found naturally in various foods including scallops, fish, poultry, dairy and breast milk. It is also used as an additive in energy drinks and baby formula and can be taken as a supplement.
Humans have an estimated average intake of 40 to 400mg per day naturally in their diet.
A study conducted in 1977 suggested taurine may help reduce severe psychiatric symptoms such as delirium, hallucinations and mental impairment.
In the study, 22 patients undergoing treatment for alcohol withdrawal were given one gram of taurine three times a day over seven days. They experienced fewer psychiatric symptoms compared to a historical comparison group who hadn’t received taurine.
Taurine concentrations have been shown to be decreased in people with schizophrenia, a condition in which people experience constant symptoms of psychosis. Higher levels of taurine in the frontal cortex – an area of the brain associated with cognition – of people with schizophrenia, were found to be associated with better cognitive functioning, specifically faster information processing.
The effects of taurine have also been tested on patients with health conditions including depression, heart disease, diabetes, growth retardation and an eye disease called retinal degeneration.
This historical evidence suggested taurine was worth investigating as a potential complementary treatment for first-episode psychosis.
Why our study matters
We tested the effects of taurine on 86 patients aged 18 to 25 who had experienced their first episode of psychosis. They were taking low-dose antipsychotic medication and attending early intervention services in Melbourne.
Psychosis usually has its first onset in a person’s late teens or early twenties and affects around three out of every 100 people in their lifetime. We randomly allocated 47 patients to receive four grams of taurine, and 39 patients to receive a placebo, once a day over a 12 week period.
Prior to the trial, we assessed their psychiatric symptoms, cognition, social and occupational functioning, tolerance to medication and side effects. We tested these again at six and 12 weeks.
Our positive results provide evidence for the potential benefits of taurine as a safe, complementary treatment for psychosis and possibly other mental health conditions.
As this was the first study to examine the efficacy of taurine in first-episode psychosis, the findings need to be replicated in trials with other samples before its use can be recommended in clinical treatment guidelines.
Future research should aim to find the ideal dose and duration of time taurine should be taken for maximal benefit. Cognitive impairments emerge very early in the course of psychosis and so it is possible that supplements such as taurine need to be trialled earlier if they are to have a positive effect on cognition.
Investigation into complementary supplements for psychosis and other mental health conditions is a growing area of research, which gives hope to people for whom standard treatments do not provide complete relief from symptoms.
This article was co-authored by Colin O'Donnell from the Department of Psychiatry at the Donegal Mental Health Service in Ireland.
Authors: Kelly Allott, Senior and Ronald Philip Griffiths Fellow, University of Melbourne