Depression may not be caused by chemical imbalance

pharmafile | July 20, 2022 | News story | Research and Development  

A major review has found “no clear evidence” that low serotonin levels are responsible for depression. Reviewing existing studies, researchers found that the condition is not likely caused by a chemical imbalance, sharing that people should be made aware of other options for treating depression.

In the new study, University College London (UCL) researchers stated 85% to 90% of the public believes that depression is caused by low serotonin or a chemical imbalance.

“Many people take antidepressants because they have been led to believe their depression has a biochemical cause, but this new research suggests this belief is not grounded in evidence,” said the study’s lead author, Joanna Moncrieff, a professor of psychiatry at University College London and consultant psychiatrist at North East London NHS foundation Trust (NELFT).

“It is always difficult to prove a negative, but I think we can safely say that after a vast amount of research conducted over several decades, there is no convincing evidence that depression is caused by serotonin abnormalities, particularly by lower levels or reduced activity of serotonin.

“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.”

Most antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and were originally said to work by correcting abnormally low serotonin levels.

A spokesman for the Royal College of Psychiatrists commented: “Antidepressants will vary in effectiveness for different people, and the reasons for this are complex, which is why it’s important that patient care is based on each individual’s needs and reviewed regularly.”

Dr Michael Bloomfield, a consultant psychiatrist, and principal clinical research fellow at University College London, said: “Many of us know that taking paracetamol can be helpful for headaches, and I don’t think anyone believes that headaches are caused by not enough paracetamol in the brain. The same logic applies to depression and medicines used to treat depression.” Bloomfield was not involved in the study.

Bloomfield however emphasised that “There is consistent evidence that antidepressant medicines can be helpful in the treatment of depression, and can be life-saving.”

Ana Ovey

Related Content

No items found

Latest content