Many of you may have heard, that the serotonin “chemical imbalance” theory of depression was recently put to rest by a group of University College London (UCL) scientists in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. After reviewing decades of research, there’s no evidence that serotonin levels or serotonin activity are responsible for depression, they wrote. In other words, the theory that was the basis for prescribing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants was false.
“The popularity of the ‘chemical imbalance’ theory of depression has coincided with a huge increase in the use of antidepressants,” stated the article’s lead author, Joanna Moncrieff, a professor of psychiatry at UCL. “Prescriptions for antidepressants have risen dramatically since the 1990s.“ Thousands of people suffer from side effects of antidepressants, including the severe withdrawal effects that can occur when people try to stop them, yet prescription rates continue to rise.
“We believe this situation has been driven partly by the false belief that depression is due to a chemical imbalance. It is high time to inform the public that this belief is not grounded in science.”
It’s generally agreed that SSRI antidepressants sometimes work, though not impressively, and not for all patients. But why?
“Any drug or stimulus that changes normal brain activity is likely to have some impact on mood, and by changing brain transmitter chemistry, antidepressants may also produce changes to normal mental activity and experiences.” Stated Dr Randy Beck, executive director of the Institute of Functional Neuroscience, Perth Australia.
Dr Beck continued “This also brings into question what antidepressants are doing: if they are not correcting an underlying chemical problem, as people are often told (“like insulin for diabetes”), then other ways of understanding what they are doing, such as providing hope (the placebo effect) or numbing emotions (a common report by patients) may be more accurate descriptions”.
Other researchers suggest a possible SSRI mechanism could be decreasing “neuroinflammation [in the brain] through multiple mechanisms including the reduction of blood or tissue cytokines or regulating complex inflammatory pathways.”
Whatever the explanation, it remains true that other methods to treat depression, including exercise, non-invasive brain stimulation and cognitive behavioural therapy, have proven efficacy with additional benefits and no side effects.
“We have been helping people overcome depression for years at the Institute utilising non-invasive brain stimulation techniques, nutritional supplementation and simple cognitive exercise“ concluded Dr Beck.
If you would like more information about depression treatment alternatives or which to make an appointment please contact the Institute of Functional Neuroscience on 618 6254 2282 or by email at [email protected].
Please note that no one should stop their antidepressant medication abruptly this can be dangerous and is known to cause withdrawal effects, which can be severe and long-lasting in some people, especially those using the medications long-term. If anyone is considering this choice, we advise you to discuss it with your doctor and, if you go ahead, to undertake a gradual and supported reduction as advised by the Royal College of Psychiatry.
Moncrieff, J., Cooper, R.E., Stockmann, T. et al. The serotonin theory of depression: a systematic umbrella review of the evidence. Mol Psychiatry (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-022-01661-0
Beck, RW et al. Modulating Cortical Asymmetry: The Transdiagnostic Reduction of Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms Utilizing a Novel Therapeutic Approach. Asia Pacific Journal of Neurotherapy (APJNT), 2019, vol 1, No 1, pages 004-022