Millions of Americans take antidepressants, but a new study suggests the theory underpinning their use may be entirely wrong. Research from the University College London raises doubt that chemical imbalance in the brain is responsible for depression.

A major review of previous studies on serotonin’s role in depression, just published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, concluded that serotonin level — the target of antidepressants — is not responsible for depression.

The researchers found “no support for the hypothesis that depression is caused by lowered serotonin activity or concentrations.”

They found stronger evidence that stressful life events can lead to depression.

The question is, do antidepressants help, and if so, how? If not, could they be doing harm?

Experts are divided and the study has drawn some pushback.

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“Some of the studies in our overview that included people who were taking or had previously taken antidepressants showed evidence that antidepressants may actually lower the concentration or activity of serotonin,” according to an article in The Conversation by the study’s authors, Joanna Moncrieff, professor of psychiatry, and Mark Horowitz, clinical research fellow in psychiatry, both of University College London.

“Most antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which were originally said to work by correcting abnormally low serotonin levels. There is no other accepted pharmacological mechanism by which antidepressants affect the symptoms of depression,” the researchers said in a news release

The research suggests depression is not biochemical and questions how, given that, a biochemical solution would work. Horowitz and Moncrieff also question whether that kind of treatment, which acts on brain chemistry, does more harm than good.

“Our view is that patients should not be told that depression is caused by low serotonin or by a chemical imbalance, and they should not be led to believe that antidepressants work by targeting these unproven abnormalities. We do not understand what antidepressants are doing to the brain exactly, and giving people this sort of misinformation prevents them from making an informed decision about whether to take antidepressants or not,” Moncrieff said.

Targeting serotonin

The “chemical imbalance” theory has dominated the thinking about depression for several decades, according to the researchers.

“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,” Moncrieff said.

In the United States between 2015 and 2018, 13.9% of adults took antidepressants for depression, according to the National Center for Health Statistics in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As many as 1 in 6 adults in England are now prescribed antidepressants every year, according to the study.

“I had been taught that depression was caused by low serotonin in my psychiatry training and had even taught this to students in my own lectures. Being involved in this research was eye-opening and feels like everything I thought I knew has been flipped upside down,” said Horowitz in background material.

As Mike McRae wrote for ScienceAlert, “This doesn’t necessarily mean serotonin-based treatments aren’t working on some other mechanism we don’t yet understand. And no one should consider ditching their meds without consulting their doctors. But given so many people are relying on these drugs, it is important to figure out what’s really going on.”

Study nuts and bolts

In all, studies in the review included tens of thousands of participants. Among the serotonin mechanisms studied and the findings:

  • No difference was seen between people with depression and healthy control subjects in levels of serotonin and breakdown products in the blood or brain fluids.
  • In studies of serotonin receptors and the serotonin transporter protein most antidepressants target, they found “weak and inconsistent evidence” suggesting higher levels of serotonin activity in those who are depressed. They believe that was caused by use of antidepressants.
  • Studies that lowered serotonin levels in hundreds of healthy volunteers did not produce depression. The researchers saw “very weak evidence” in a small 75-person subgroup of people with a family history of depression. A study after that was inconclusive.
  • No evidence of variation in the serotonin transporter gene was found between those with depression and healthy control subjects. 

On the other hand, stressful life events had a “strong effect” on the risk of becoming depressed. And the more one experienced stress or trauma, the greater the likelihood of depression. 

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“A famous early study found a relationship between stressful events, the type of serotonin transporter gene a person had and the chance of depression. But larger, more comprehensive studies suggest this was a false finding,” the release said.

In the piece from The Conversation, Moncrieff and Horowitz wrote, “It is important that people know that the idea that depression results from a ‘chemical imbalance’ is hypothetical. And we do not understand what temporarily elevating serotonin or other biochemical changes produced by antidepressants do to the brain. We conclude that it is impossible to say that taking SSRI antidepressants is worthwhile, or even completely safe.”

Public perception

Surveys suggest as many as 90% of people believe depression is caused by low serotonin or chemical imbalance. There’s evidence believing that creates a “pessimistic outlook on the likelihood of recovery” and the hope of managing depression without medical help, the study said.

Doubts about brain chemistry’s role in depression have been around a while.

“If you’re among those who are hearing all of this for the first time, the hypothesis has been on shaky ground practically since it took off in the 1990s, with study after study failing to support the idea,” wrote ScienceAlert’s McRae. He noted the Moncrieff and Horowitz limited their research to high-quality, peer-evaluated studies.

“Just 17 studies made the cut, which included a genetic association study, another umbrella review, and a dozen systematic reviews and meta-analyses,” he wrote.

The impact is huge, given most people will have diagnosable levels of anxiety or depression at some point, the researchers said.

The researchers also said one large meta-analysis found people using antidepressants had less serotonin in their blood, which could mean that antidepressants designed to raise levels of serotonin may do the opposite over time.

The researchers note they didn’t look at the efficacy of antidepressants. Their hope, they said, is that more research and treatment will focus on helping people manage stressful or traumatic events, “such as with psychotherapy, alongside other practices such as exercise or mindfulness, or addressing underlying contributors such as poverty, stress and loneliness.”

Some experts disagree

The research has attracted some pushback.

The Guardian quoted Dr. Michael Bloomfield, a consultant psychiatrist and principal clinical research fellow at University College London, who was not involved in the study: “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.”

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

Johan Lundberg at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden told New Scientist that one limitation of the study is failure to distinguish between those with long-term depression and those having episodes of depression, because their state during the study could be different in terms of serotonin. “It is key to separately analyze data from studies that examine the same patients when ill and when in remission, to have optimal conditions to examine the hypothesis,” he said.

The same article quoted a spokesperson for the Royal College of Psychiatrists who was talking about treatment guidelines from public health officials in England, who said antidepressants are an effective treatment for depression and some other physical and mental health conditions.

The spokesperson noted 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).”