Mental Health, News & Research

Depression is a Chemical Imbalance… or Not

Depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and antidepressants work to correct that imbalance, right? Not so fast. A chemical imbalance is a theory of depression — and one that drug companies who make SSRIs push — but that doesn’t make it fact.

An article in the December issue of PLoS Medicine examines direct-to-consumer ads for SSRIs that make this claim. Using existing medical research, the authors conclude “[T]here is no such thing as a scientifically established correct ‘balance’ of serotonin….” and that there is “a growing body of medical literature casting doubt on the serotonin hypothesis.” In fact, they say that “Not a single peer-reviewed article … support[s] claims of serotonin deficiency in any mental disorder.”

Hopefully Shrinkette will give us her insight into this topic. The Wall Street Journal weighs in with Some Drugs Work to Treat Depression, But it isn’t Clear How.

2 thoughts on “Depression is a Chemical Imbalance… or Not”

  1. I’m from New Zealand, and I’m not sure how our version of Time Magazine works in with the US version (it may be way behind), but…

    In the latest copy of NZ Time there is a cover story about this issue, and also some of the more nasty psychological side effects of SSRIs. Apparently 1-2% of patients have a severe negative reaction to the drugs, involving increased depression and suicidal impulses.

    Which isn’t to say that the drugs shouldn’t be prescribed, just that people should be made aware of the risks, as with any treatment.

    That’s been in the news a lot here, too. The FDA now requires warnings strong, specific warnings about potential risks of drugs increasing depression and suicide-risk. The text of the warning is at and site also has great information on these issues in children, adolescents and adults at

    (And I love your e-mail address and Live Journal user name!)


  2. Wow, was that a thought-provoking article! I think I implicitly believed in the serotonin theory without ever questioning it. But if an SSRI works, it works, and as with most medications, scientists aren’t really sure of the mechanism of action. I’m OK with taking a medication even if we don’t know exactly how it works. As long as I get results!

    The psychiatrist friend who I celebrated Thanksgiving with said that this widespread theory is completely bunk. I’ll post on everything that she told me, but I need to do research first. I want to make sure I don’t misrepresent anything.


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