Too much not too little serotonin may trigger depression

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Most of us are probably aware that serotonin levels have a role to play in depression and that someone with low levels of serotonin are more likely to become depressed. Now there is evidence to suggest that brain chemistry isn’t quite as simple as that.

Recent research indicates that the reverse may actually be true and that people with too much serotonin in certain parts of the brain may develop depression. If this proves to be the case then it means that drugs such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors known as SSRIs may not be effective in treating some people with depression.

Recent evidence published in the Archives of General Psychiatry has shown that in some people with depression, serotonin activity is increased. Not only that, but there may be different types of serotonin neurons each of which are independently regulated.

The New Scientist reports Christopher Lowry of the University of Boulder in Colorado as saying “Because antidepressants increase serotonin in some parts of the brain, people assumed that depression must be the result of low serotonin”.

In the light of the recent evidence, this could mean a change of thinking about how serotonin influences depression and obviously a change in the treatment of depression.

“What’s more likely is that there are subgroups of serotonin neurons that are overactive in depressed patients, rather than under active as we have all been assuming” says Lowry.

The New Scientist also reports that 3 years ago, researcher Murray Esler and colleagues from the Baker Heart Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia, found that the levels of serotonin in people with panic disorder was actually 4 times higher than it was in people who were healthy. Also, in people who were depressed and who were not receiving any medication, the serotonin levels were twice as high as they were in healthy volunteers.

The researchers also showed that using SSRI drugs over a long period of time actually had the effect of reducing serotonin levels although the reason why isn’t known.

Using rats and mice, Lowry has now been able to demonstrate multiple types of serotonin neurons and he presented his results at the Forum of European Neuroscience in Amsterdam last week.

The implications of the research are that higher levels of serotonin in some parts of the brain can elevate mood whereas higher levels in other parts could have the opposite effect.

Obviously this research will have an impact on the future of anti-depressant medication as a better understanding of each of the groups of serotonin neurons could lead to targeted drugs and more effective treatments for anxiety and depression.

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