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Research questionPulmonary rehabilitation is the best treatment for chronic breathlessness in COPD but there remains an unmet need to improve efficacy. Pulmonary rehabilitation has strong parallels with exposure-based cognitive behavioural therapies (CBT), both clinically and in terms of brain activity patterns. The partial N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA)-receptor agonist d-cycloserine has shown promising results in enhancing efficacy of CBT, thus we hypothesised that it would similarly augment the effects of pulmonary rehabilitation in the brain. Positive findings would support further development in phase 3 clinical trials.Methods72 participants with mild-to-moderate COPD were recruited to a double-blind pre-registered ( identifier: NCT01985750) experimental medicine study running parallel to a pulmonary rehabilitation course. Participants were randomised to 250 mg d-cycloserine or placebo, administered immediately prior to the first four sessions of pulmonary rehabilitation. Primary outcome measures were differences between d-cycloserine and placebo in brain activity in the anterior insula, posterior insula, anterior cingulate cortices, amygdala and hippocampus following completion of pulmonary rehabilitation. Secondary outcomes included the same measures at an intermediate time point and voxel-wise difference across wider brain regions. An exploratory analysis determined the interaction with breathlessness anxiety.ResultsNo difference between d-cycloserine and placebo groups was observed across the primary or secondary outcome measures. d-cycloserine was shown instead to interact with changes in breathlessness anxiety to dampen reactivity to breathlessness cues. Questionnaire and measures of respiratory function showed no group difference. This is the first study testing brain-active drugs in pulmonary rehabilitation. Rigorous trial methodology and validated surrogate end-points maximised statistical power.ConclusionAlthough increasing evidence supports therapeutic modulation of NMDA pathways to treat symptoms, we conclude that a phase 3 clinical trial of d-cycloserine would not be worthwhile.

Original publication




Journal article


ERJ open research

Publication Date





479 - 2022


Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.