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Low-Serotonin Depression Theory Challenged

Low-Serotonin Depression Theory Challenged

A new paper challenges the prevailing opinion that depression is related to low levels of serotonin in the gaps between nerve cells in the brain.

This theory has predominated for nearly 50 years and has led to the development of the commonly prescribed anti-depressant medications called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. But it has never been proven.

The science behind many anti-depressant medications appears to be backwards, say the authors of a paper posted by the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.

SSRIs keep the neurotransmitter’s (serotonin) levels high by blocking its re-absorption into the cells that release it.

But those serotonin-boosting medications actually make it harder for patients to recover, especially in the short term, said lead author Paul Andrews, an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience & behavior at McMaster University in Canada.

“It’s time we rethink what we are doing,” Andrews says. “We are taking people who are suffering from the most common forms of depression, and instead of helping them, it appears we are putting an obstacle in their path to recovery.”

When depressed patients on SSRI medication do show improvement, it appears that their brains are actually overcoming the effects of antidepressant medications, rather than being assisted directly by them. Instead of helping, the medications appear to be interfering with the brain’s own mechanisms of recovery.

“We’ve seen that people report feeling worse, not better, for their first two weeks on antidepressants,” Andrews says. “This could explain why.”

It is currently impossible to measure exactly how the brain is releasing and using serotonin, the researchers write, because there is no safe way to measure it in a living human brain.

Instead, scientists must rely on measuring evidence about levels of serotonin that the brain has already metabolized, and by extrapolating from studies using animals.

The best available evidence appears to show that there is more serotonin being released and used during depressive episodes, not less, the authors say.

The new paper suggests that serotonin helps the brain adapt to depression by re-allocating its resources, giving more to conscious thought and less to areas such as growth, development, reproduction, immune function, and the stress response.

Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist, has argued in previous research that antidepressants leave patients in worse shape after they stop using them, and that most forms of depression, though painful, are natural and beneficial adaptations to stress.

Source: McMaster University

Low-Serotonin Depression Theory Challenged

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2015). Low-Serotonin Depression Theory Challenged. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2015/02/18/low-serotonin-depression-theory-challenged/81396.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Oct 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Oct 2015
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.