Serotonin deficiency may not cause depression after all
Depression strikes some 35 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, contributing to lowered quality of life as well as an increased risk of heart disease and suicide. Treatments typically include psychotherapy, support groups and education as well as psychiatric medications.
SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, currently are the most commonly prescribed category of antidepressant drugs in the U.S., and have become a household name in treating depression.
The action of these compounds is fairly familiar. SSRIs increase available levels of serotonin, sometimes referred to as the feel-good neurotransmitter, in our brains. Neurons communicate via neurotransmitters, chemicals which pass from one nerve cell to another. A transporter molecule recycles unused transmitter and carries it back to the pre-synaptic cell. For serotonin, that shuttle is called SERT (short for “serotonin transporter”).
An SSRI binds to SERT and blocks its activity, allowing more serotonin to remain in the spaces between neurons. Yet, exactly how this biochemistry then works against depression remains a scientific mystery.
In fact, SSRIs fail to work for mild cases of depression, suggesting that regulating serotonin might be an indirect treatment only. “There’s really no evidence that depression is a serotonin-deficiency syndrome,” says Alan Gelenberg, a depression and psychiatric researcher at The Pennsylvania State University. “It’s like saying that a headache is an aspirin-deficiency syndrome.” SSRIs work insofar as they reduce the symptoms of depression, but “they’re pretty nonspecific,” he adds.
Now, research headed up by neuroscientists David Gurwitz and Noam Shomron of Tel Aviv University in Israel supports recent thinking that rather than a shortage of serotonin, a lack of synaptogenesis (the growth of new synapses, or nerve contacts) and neurogenesis (the generation and migration of new neurons) could cause depression.
In this model lower serotonin levels would merely result when cells stopped making new connections among neurons or the brain stopped making new neurons. So, directly treating the cause of this diminished neuronal activity could prove to be a more effective therapy for depression than simply relying on drugs to increase serotonin levels.