Contrary to the current conventional wisdom, depression is “not caused by chemical imbalance,” a major scientific analysis by University College London has concluded.
The researchers present evidence indicating depression is not a chemical imbalance in the brain, suggesting scientists have no idea how antidepressants work, the Telegraph of London reported.
About one in six adults in England are currently prescribed antidepressants, most of which act largely by maintaining serotonin levels.
But the new analysis, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, suggests low levels of serotonin depression is not actually the cause of depression. Instead, the researchers found, the condition is more strongly linked to negative life events, which lower mood.
Lead author Joanna Moncrieff, a professor of psychiatry at University College London, noted that many people take antidepressants because they have been led to believe their depression has a biochemical cause.
“But this research suggests this belief is not grounded in evidence,” she said.
The researchers examined studies on serotonin and depression. They looked at the serotonin levels of thousands of people diagnosed with the condition and found no difference between them and healthy control participants.
A co-author of the study, Dr. Mark Horowitz, said the results were “eye-opening,” noting that up to 90% of the public believes that depression is caused by low serotonin or a chemical imbalance.
The researcher said it “feels like everything I thought I knew has been flipped upside down.”
A word of caution came from Dr. Michael Bloomfield, consultant psychiatrist at University College London, who argued that human beings are complex and each person must be treated as an individual.
The review doesn’t change the fact that antidepressant medicines can be helpful in the treatment of depression and even life-saving, he wrote in an addendum to the Telegraph article.
He noted, for example, that taking paracetamol can be helpful for headaches, yet “no one believes that headaches are caused by not enough paracetamol in the brain.”
“The same logic applies to depression and medicines used in its treatment,” he wrote. “All medicines can have side-effects and suddenly stopping any treatment can be potentially harmful. Anyone taking a medicine for depression who is thinking of stopping treatment should discuss this with their doctor first.”
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