A controversial new study published in the journal, Molecular Psychiatry, has found that there’s no clear evidence serotonin levels or serotonin activity are responsible for depression. Depression is not likely caused by chemical imbalance, according to the new umbrella review led by UCL scientists. Instead, the findings indicate that depression may be a result of changes in other brain chemicals and neural signaling pathways. Their findings call into question what antidepressants do exactly.
Most antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which were originally said to work by correcting abnormally low serotonin levels. The researchers pointed out that they did not look at the efficacy of antidepressants in these studies. They did say that stress and trauma are more likely to be the cause of depression (who doesn’t have either one of these?) and they hope is that more research and treatment will be aimed at helping people manage both of those, in addition to addressing underlying factors, like poverty and loneliness.
There are still experts who are doubtful of these findings and still consider antidepressant medications to be life-saving. A spokesperson for the Royal College of Psychiatrists was quoted saying that:
“antidepressants will vary in effectiveness for different people, and the reasons for this are complex. We would not recommend for anyone to stop taking their antidepressants based on this review, and encourage anyone with concerns about their medication to contact their (family doctor).”
We’ve entered a liminal space in our understanding of depression. While experts debate about the root cause of the mental illness, people struggling with it still need to survive. At the moment, a combination of talk therapy and and SSRIs seems to be working. Until they can find a way to eliminate stress and prevent traumatic events or if they discover an entirely different treatment that works better, this is all we have to help people survive.