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Mechanism of Action

The precise mechanism by which XENAZINE (tetrabenazine) exerts its anti-chorea effects is unknown but is believed to be related to its effect as a reversible depletor of monoamines (such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and histamine) from nerve terminals. Tetrabenazine reversibly inhibits the human vesicular monoamine transporter type 2 (VMAT2) (Ki ≈ 100 nM), resulting in decreased uptake of monoamines into synaptic vesicles and depletion of monoamine stores. Human VMAT2 is also inhibited by dihydrotetrabenazine (HTBZ), a mixture of α-HTBZ and β-HTBZ. α- and β-HTBZ, major circulating metabolites in humans, exhibit high in vitro binding affinity to bovine VMAT2. Tetrabenazine exhibits weak in vitro binding affinity at the dopamine D2 receptor (Ki = 2100 nM).


QTc Prolongation

The effect of a single 25 or 50 mg dose of XENAZINE on the QT interval was studied in a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled crossover study in healthy male and female subjects with moxifloxacin as a positive control. At 50 mg, XENAZINE caused an approximately 8 msec mean increase in QTc (90% CI: 5.0, 10.4 msec). Additional data suggest that inhibition of CYP2D6 in healthy subjects given a single 50 mg dose of XENAZINE does not further increase the effect on the QTc interval. Effects at higher exposures to either XENAZINE or its metabolites have not been evaluated [see WARNINGS AND PRECAUTIONS, DRUG INTERACTIONS, and Use in Specific Populations].

Melanin Binding

Tetrabenazine or its metabolites bind to melanin-containing tissues (i.e., eye, skin, fur) in pigmented rats. After a single oral dose of radiolabeled tetrabenazine, radioactivity was still detected in eye and fur at 21 days post dosing [see WARNINGS AND PRECAUTIONS].



Following oral administration of tetrabenazine, the extent of absorption is at least 75%. After single oral doses ranging from 12.5 to 50 mg, plasma concentrations of tetrabenazine are generally below the limit of detection because of the rapid and extensive hepatic metabolism of tetrabenazine by carbonyl reductase to the active metabolites α-HTBZ and β-HTBZ. α-HTBZ and β-HTBZ are metabolized principally by CYP2D6. Peak plasma concentrations (Cmax) of α-HTBZ and β-HTBZ are reached within 1 to 1½ hours post-dosing. α-HTBZ is subsequently metabolized to a minor metabolite, 9-desmethyl-α-DHTBZ. β-HTBZ is subsequently, metabolized to another major circulating metabolite, 9-desmethyl-β-DHTBZ, for which Cmax is reached approximately 2 hours post-dosing.

Food Effects

The effects of food on the bioavailability of XENAZINE were studied in subjects administered a single dose with and without food. Food had no effect on mean plasma concentrations, Cmax, or the area under the concentration time course (AUC) of α-HTBZ or β-HTBZ. XENAZINE can, therefore, be administered without regard to meals.


Results of PET-scan studies in humans show that radioactivity is rapidly distributed to the brain following intravenous injection of 11C-labeled tetrabenazine or α-HTBZ, with the highest binding in the striatum and lowest binding in the cortex.

The in vitro protein binding of tetrabenazine, α-HTBZ, and β-HTBZ was examined in human plasma for concentrations ranging from 50 to 200 ng/mL. Tetrabenazine binding ranged from 82% to 85%, α-HTBZ binding ranged from 60% to 68%, and β-HTBZ binding ranged from 59% to 63%.


After oral administration in humans, at least 19 metabolites of tetrabenazine have been identified. α-HTBZ, β-HTBZ and 9-desmethyl-β-DHTBZ, are the major circulating metabolites, and they are, subsequently, metabolized to sulfate or glucuronide conjugates. α-HTBZ and β- HTBZ are formed by carbonyl reductase that occurs mainly in the liver. α-HTBZ is Odealkylated by CYP450 enzymes, principally CYP2D6, with some contribution of CYP1A2 to form 9-desmethyl-α-DHTBZ, a minor metabolite. β-HTBZ is O-dealkylated principally by CYP2D6 to form 9-desmethyl-β-DHTBZ.

The results of in vitro studies do not suggest that tetrabenazine, α-HTBZ, or β-HTBZ are likely to result in clinically significant inhibition of CYP2D6, CYP1A2, CYP2B6, CYP2C8, CYP2C9, CYP2C19, CYP2E1, or CYP3A. In vitro studies suggest that neither tetrabenazine nor its α- or β-HTBZ metabolites are likely to result in clinically significant induction of CYP1A2, CYP3A4, CYP2B6, CYP2C8, CYP2C9, or CYP2C19.

Neither tetrabenazine nor its α- or β-HTBZ metabolites is likely to be a substrate or inhibitor of P-glycoprotein at clinically relevant concentrations in vivo.

No in vitro metabolism studies have been conducted to evaluate the potential of the 9-desmethyl- β-DHTBZ metabolite to interact with other drugs. The activity of this metabolite relative to the parent drug is unknown.


After oral administration, tetrabenazine is extensively hepatically metabolized, and the metabolites are primarily renally eliminated. α-HTBZ, β-HTBZ and 9-desmethyl-β-DHTBZ have half-lives of 7 hours, 5 hours and 12 hours respectively. In a mass balance study in 6 healthy volunteers, approximately 75% of the dose was excreted in the urine and fecal recovery accounted for approximately 7-16% of the dose. Unchanged tetrabenazine has not been found in human urine. Urinary excretion of α-HTBZ or β-HTBZ accounted for less than 10% of the administered dose. Circulating metabolites, including sulfate and glucuronide conjugates of HTBZ metabolites as well as products of oxidative metabolism, account for the majority of metabolites in the urine.

Specific Populations

Pediatric Patient

The pharmacokinetics of XENAZINE and its primary metabolites have not been studied in pediatric subjects [see Use In Specific Populations].

Geriatric Patient

The pharmacokinetics of XENAZINE and its primary metabolites have not been formally studied in geriatric subjects [see Use in Specific Populations].


There is no apparent effect of gender on the pharmacokinetics of α-HTBZ or β-HTBZ.


Racial differences in the pharmacokinetics of XENAZINE and its primary metabolites have not been formally studied.

Patients with Renal Impairment

The effect of renal insufficiency on the pharmacokinetics of XENAZINE and its primary metabolites has not been studied.

Patients with Hepatic Impairment

The disposition of tetrabenazine was compared in 12 patients with mild to moderate chronic liver impairment (Child-Pugh scores of 5-9) and 12 age- and gender-matched subjects with normal hepatic function who received a single 25 mg dose of tetrabenazine. In patients with hepatic impairment, tetrabenazine plasma concentrations were similar to or higher than concentrations of α-HTBZ, reflecting the markedly decreased metabolism of tetrabenazine to α-HTBZ. The mean tetrabenazine Cmax in hepatically impaired subjects was approximately 7- to 190-fold higher than the detectable peak concentrations in healthy subjects. The elimination half-life of tetrabenazine in subjects with hepatic impairment was approximately 17.5 hours. The time to peak concentrations (tmax) of α-HTBZ and β-HTBZ was slightly delayed in subjects with hepatic impairment compared to age-matched controls (1.75 hrs vs. 1.0 hrs), and the elimination half lives of the α-HTBZ and β-HTBZ were prolonged to approximately 10 and 8 hours, respectively.

The exposure to α-HTBZ and β-HTBZ was approximately 30-39% greater in patients with liver impairment than in age-matched controls. The safety and efficacy of this increased exposure to tetrabenazine and other circulating metabolites are unknown so that it is not possible to adjust the dosage of tetrabenazine in hepatic impairment to ensure safe use. Therefore, tetrabenazine is contraindicated in patients with hepatic impairment. [see DOSAGE AND ADMINISTRATION, CONTRAINDICATIONS, WARNINGS AND PRECAUTIONS, and Use In Specific Populations].

Patients Who Are Poor or Extensive CYP2D6 Metabolizers

Patients should be genotyped for drug metabolizing enzyme, CYP2D6, prior to treatment with daily doses of XENAZINE over 50 mg [see DOSAGE AND ADMINISTRATION, WARNINGS AND PRECAUTIONS, and Use in Specific Populations].

Poor Metabolizers

Although the pharmacokinetics of XENAZINE and its metabolites in subjects who do not express the drug metabolizing enzyme, CYP2D6, poor metabolizers, (PMs), have not been systematically evaluated, it is likely that the exposure to α-HTBZ and β-HTBZ would be increased similar to that observed in patients taking strong CYP2D6 inhibitors (3- and 9-fold, respectively). Patients who are PMs should not be given doses greater than 50 mg per day and the maximum recommended single dose is 25 mg [see DOSAGE AND ADMINISTRATION, WARNINGS AND PRECAUTIONS, and Use in Specific Populations].

Extensive or Intermediate CYP2D6 Metabolizers

In patients who express the enzyme, CYP2D6, (extensive [EMs] or intermediate [IMs] metabolizers), the maximum recommended daily dose is 100 mg per day, with a maximum recommended single dose of 37.5 mg [see DOSAGE AND ADMINISTRATION, WARNINGS AND PRECAUTIONS, and Use in Specific Populations].

Drug Interactions

CYP2D6 Inhibitors

In vitro studies indicate that α-HTBZ and β-HTBZ are substrates for CYP2D6. The effect of CYP2D6 inhibition on the pharmacokinetics of tetrabenazine and its metabolites was studied in 25 healthy subjects following a single 50 mg dose of tetrabenazine given after 10 days of administration of the strong CYP2D6 inhibitor paroxetine 20 mg daily. There was an approximately 30% increase in Cmax and an approximately 3-fold increase in AUC for α-HTBZ in subjects given paroxetine prior to tetrabenazine compared to tetrabenazine given alone. For β-HTBZ, the Cmax and AUC were increased 2.4- and 9-fold, respectively, in subjects given paroxetine prior to tetrabenazine given alone. The elimination half-life of α-HTBZ and β-HTBZ was approximately 14 hours when tetrabenazine was given with paroxetine.

Strong CYP2D6 inhibitors (e.g., paroxetine, fluoxetine, quinidine) markedly increase exposure to these metabolites. The effect of moderate or weak CYP2D6 inhibitors such as duloxetine, terbinafine, amiodarone, or sertraline on the exposure to XENAZINE and its metabolites has not been evaluated [see DOSAGE AND ADMINISTRATION, DRUG INTERACTIONS, and Use in Specific Populations].


Digoxin is a substrate for P-glycoprotein. A study in healthy volunteers showed that XENAZINE (25 mg twice daily for 3 days) did not affect the bioavailability of digoxin, suggesting that at this dose, XENAZINE does not affect P-glycoprotein in the intestinal tract. In vitro studies also do not suggest that XENAZINE or its metabolites are P-glycoprotein inhibitors.


XENAZINE is contraindicated in patients taking reserpine. At least 20 days should elapse after stopping reserpine before starting XENAZINE [see CONTRAINDICATIONS, WARNINGS AND PRECAUTIONS, and DRUG INTERACTIONS].

Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs)

XENAZINE is contraindicated in patients taking MAOIs. XENAZINE should not be used in combination with an MAOI, or within a minimum of 14 days of discontinuing therapy with an MAOI [see CONTRAINDICATIONS, WARNINGS AND PRECAUTIONS, and DRUG INTERACTIONS].

Clinical Studies

Study 1

The efficacy of XENAZINE as a treatment for the chorea of Huntington's disease was established primarily in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled multi-center trial (Study 1) conducted in ambulatory patients with a diagnosis of HD. The diagnosis of HD was based on family history, neurological exam, and genetic testing. Treatment duration was 12 weeks, including a 7-week dose titration period and a 5-week maintenance period followed by a 1-week washout. The dose of XENAZINE was started at 12.5 mg per day and titrated upward at weekly intervals in 12.5 mg increments until satisfactory control of chorea was achieved, until intolerable side effects occurred, or until a maximal dose of 100 mg per day was reached.

The primary efficacy endpoint was the Total Chorea Score, an item of the Unified Huntington's Disease Rating Scale (UHDRS). On this scale, chorea is rated from 0 to 4 (with 0 representing no chorea) for 7 different parts of the body. The total score ranges from 0 to 28.

As shown in Figure 1, Total Chorea Scores for subjects in the drug group declined by an estimated 5.0 units during maintenance therapy (average of Week 9 and Week 12 scores versus baseline), compared to an estimated 1.5 units in the placebo group. The treatment effect of 3.5 units was statistically significant. At the Week 13 follow-up in Study 1 (1 week after discontinuation of the study medication), the Total Chorea Scores of subjects receiving XENAZINE returned to baseline.

Figure 1: Mean ± s.e.m. Changes from Baseline in Total Chorea Score in 84 HD Subjects Treated with XENAZINE (n=54) or Placebo (n=30)

Mean ± s.e.m. Changes from Baseline - Illustration

Figure 2 illustrates the cumulative percentages of patients from the XENAZINE and placebo treatment groups who achieved the level of reduction in the Total Chorea Score shown on the X axis. The left-ward shift of the curve (toward greater improvement) for XENAZINE-treated patients indicates that these patients were more likely to have any given degree of improvement in chorea score. Thus, for example, about 7% of placebo patients had a 6-point or greater improvement compared to 50% of XENAZINE-treated patients. The percentage of patients achieving reductions of at least 10, 6, and 3-points from baseline to Week 12 are shown in the inset table.

Figure 2: Cumulative Percentage of Patients with Specified Changes from Baseline in Total Chorea Score.

Cumulative Percentage of Patients with Specified Changes from Baseline - Illustration

The Percentages of Randomized Patients within each treatment group who completed Study 1 were: Placebo 97%, Tetrabenazine 91%.

A Physician-rated Clinical Global Impression (CGI) favored XENAZINE statistically. In general, measures of functional capacity and cognition showed no difference between XENAZINE and placebo. However, one functional measure (Part 4 of the UHDRS), a 25-item scale assessing the capacity for patients to perform certain activities of daily living, showed a decrement for patients treated with XENAZINE compared to placebo, a difference that was nominally statistically significant. A 3-item cognitive battery specifically developed to assess cognitive function in patients with HD (Part 2 of the UHDRS) also showed a decrement for patients treated with XENAZINE compared to placebo, but the difference was not statistically significant.

Study 2

A second controlled study was performed in patients who had been treated with open-label XENAZINE for at least 2 months (mean duration of treatment was 2 years). They were randomized to continuation of XENAZINE at the same dose (n=12) or to placebo (n=6) for three days, at which time their chorea scores were compared. Although the comparison did not reach statistical significance (p=0.1), the estimate of the treatment effect was similar to that seen in Study 1 (about 3.5 units).

Last reviewed on RxList: 6/19/2015
This monograph has been modified to include the generic and brand name in many instances.

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