The head of the psychology department said psychiatrists have known for years that low serotonin levels may not cause depression, even though they continue to prescribe pills.
Dr. Jonathan Raskin, also a psychotherapist at State University of New York, told DailyMail.com he had been concerned that the theory that depression was caused by low serotonin levels had been ‘incomplete’ for a while.
But he said many doctors continued to prescribe the drug, even as they were unsure if it was effective, because it was “easier” to provide more intensive care for the time.
He added that the pills can help some patients, but they are not a “panacea” for those suffering from depression.
A prominent British study this week called into question society’s ever-growing reliance on antidepressants such as Prozac.
The $15 billion a year industry — and is set to grow to $21 billion in the next decade — sees patients prescribing pills like Prozac on the promise that they will treat people’s depression by raising levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain.
But after reviewing 17 major studies at University College London, the scientists said they found no convincing evidence that a deficiency of this chemical caused the condition.
Dr. Jonathan Raskin, chair of the psychology department at the State University of New York at New Paltz, said many experts were concerned that the theory was “incomplete.”
A review of evidence found no link between low levels of serotonin and depression, researchers from University College London said, casting doubt on antidepressants designed to boost levels of the “feel-good” chemical. But other experts questioned the results
Figures show that about 13 percent of American adults take antidepressants each year.
But rates are much higher among women, with an annual prescription rate of 18 percent.
Asked whether low serotonin levels cause depression, Raskin said: “I think most mental health professionals familiar with the research have known for some time that the serotonin theory of depression is incomplete and has mixed research support.
Depression is a complex problem, and the idea that we will be able to simply reduce it to serotonin is not true.
“When we give antidepressants, we don’t do so based on biological tests that show they don’t have enough serotonin – but if we think it can help them.”
Asked if people should continue to take the pills, he said, “I think this is a conversation worth having.
I wouldn’t say that people should or shouldn’t be with them, but I think there has been a lot of popular spread of the idea that we reduced depression to low levels of serotonin.
“Antidepressants have some effect for some time for some people, but I don’t think they are a cure-all for everyone.”
What is depression? Symptoms and causes
While it is normal to feel down from time to time, people with depression may feel persistently sad for weeks or months in a row.
Depression can strike anyone at any age and is fairly common – one in ten people is likely to experience it at some point in their life.
Depression is a real health condition that people cannot ignore or “get rid of.”
Symptoms and effects vary, but can include a persistent feeling of malaise or hopelessness, or a loss of interest in things you used to enjoy.
It can also cause physical symptoms such as sleep problems, fatigue, decreased appetite or sex drive, and even physical pain.
In extreme cases it can lead to suicidal thoughts.
Traumatic events can trigger it, and people with a family history may be at greater risk.
It’s important to see a doctor if you think you or someone you know has depression, as it can be managed with lifestyle changes, therapy, or medication.
Source: NHS Choices
“It’s easier to prescribe and give to people than to provide things that take longer, like psychotherapy,” he added.
So it may be offered to people even though other solutions are equal or more effective.
One academic involved in the UK study described the findings as “eye-opening”, and that “everything I thought I knew was turned upside down”.
Lead author Professor Joanna Moncrieff, a psychiatrist, said: “The popularity of the ‘chemical imbalance’ theory has coincided with a massive increase in the use of antidepressants.
Thousands experience antidepressant side effects, including severe withdrawal effects that can occur when people try to stop them, yet prescription rates continue to rise.
Serotonin helps carry signals in the brain and is believed to have a positive effect on mood, emotion, and sleep.
It is preferred over other types of antidepressants because it causes fewer side effects. However, they can still direct patients who take them to experience anxiety, diarrhea, dizziness, and blurred vision.
Depressed patients can also develop crippling withdrawal symptoms when they try to get off the pills.
At the same time, a large body of studies have suggested that it does not work any better than a placebo.
The UCL study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, analyzed 17 previous reviews from 2010 and consisted of dozens of individual trials.
It does not prove that SSRIs do not work. However, it does indicate that the drugs do not treat depression by stabilizing abnormally low levels of serotonin.
Professor Moncrieff and colleagues said SSRIs had no other proven way of working.
She added: ‘We can safely say that after a great deal of research over several decades, there is no convincing evidence that depression is caused by serotonin abnormalities, particularly due to low or low serotonin levels.
We don’t understand exactly what antidepressants do to the brain.
“Giving people this kind of misinformation prevents them from making an informed decision about whether or not to take antidepressants.”
The studies used in the review included hundreds of thousands of people from different countries.
They find that there is no difference in serotonin levels between depressed people and healthy people, despite surveys indicating that as many as 95 percent of the public believe this is the case.
And artificially lowering serotonin levels in healthy volunteers did not lead to depression.