Moncrieff J, Cooper RE, Stockmann T, Amendola S, Hengartner MP, Horowitz MA. The serotonin theory of depression: a systematic umbrella review of the evidence. Mol Psychiatry. 2022 Jul 20. doi: 10.1038/s41380-022-01661-0. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 35854107.
The serotonin hypothesis of depression is still influential. We aimed to synthesise and evaluate evidence on whether depression is associated with lowered serotonin concentration or activity in a systematic umbrella review of the principal relevant areas of research. PubMed, EMBASE and PsycINFO were searched using terms appropriate to each area of research, from their inception until December 2020. Systematic reviews, meta-analyses and large data-set analyses in the following areas were identified: serotonin and serotonin metabolite, 5-HIAA, concentrations in body fluids; serotonin 5-HT1A receptor binding; serotonin transporter (SERT) levels measured by imaging or at post-mortem; tryptophan depletion studies; SERT gene associations and SERT gene-environment interactions. Studies of depression associated with physical conditions and specific subtypes of depression (e.g. bipolar depression) were excluded. Two independent reviewers extracted the data and assessed the quality of included studies using the AMSTAR-2, an adapted AMSTAR-2, or the STREGA for a large genetic study. The certainty of study results was assessed using a modified version of the GRADE. We did not synthesise results of individual meta-analyses because they included overlapping studies. The review was registered with PROSPERO (CRD42020207203). 17 studies were included: 12 systematic reviews and meta-analyses, 1 collaborative meta-analysis, 1 meta-analysis of large cohort studies, 1 systematic review and narrative synthesis, 1 genetic association study and 1 umbrella review. Quality of reviews was variable with some genetic studies of high quality. Two meta-analyses of overlapping studies examining the serotonin metabolite, 5-HIAA, showed no association with depression (largest n = 1002). One meta-analysis of cohort studies of plasma serotonin showed no relationship with depression, and evidence that lowered serotonin concentration was associated with antidepressant use (n = 1869). Two meta-analyses of overlapping studies examining the 5-HT1A receptor (largest n = 561), and three meta-analyses of overlapping studies examining SERT binding (largest n = 1845) showed weak and inconsistent evidence of reduced binding in some areas, which would be consistent with increased synaptic availability of serotonin in people with depression, if this was the original, causal abnormaly. However, effects of prior antidepressant use were not reliably excluded. One meta-analysis of tryptophan depletion studies found no effect in most healthy volunteers (n = 566), but weak evidence of an effect in those with a family history of depression (n = 75). Another systematic review (n = 342) and a sample of ten subsequent studies (n = 407) found no effect in volunteers. No systematic review of tryptophan depletion studies has been performed since 2007. The two largest and highest quality studies of the SERT gene, one genetic association study (n = 115,257) and one collaborative meta-analysis (n = 43,165), revealed no evidence of an association with depression, or of an interaction between genotype, stress and depression. The main areas of serotonin research provide no consistent evidence of there being an association between serotonin and depression, and no support for the hypothesis that depression is caused by lowered serotonin activity or concentrations. Some evidence was consistent with the possibility that long-term antidepressant use reduces serotonin concentration.
From the article:
The chemical imbalance theory of depression is still put forward by professionals, and the serotonin theory, in particular, has formed the basis of a considerable research effort over the last few decades. The general public widely believes that depression has been convincingly demonstrated to be the result of serotonin or other chemical abnormalities, and this belief shapes how people understand their moods, leading to a pessimistic outlook on the outcome of depression and negative expectancies about the possibility of self-regulation of mood. The idea that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance also influences decisions about whether to take or continue antidepressant medication and may discourage people from discontinuing treatment, potentially leading to lifelong dependence on these drugs...
One study in this review found that antidepressant use was associated with a reduction of plasma serotonin, and it is possible that the evidence for reductions in SERT density and 5-HT1A receptors in some of the included imaging study reviews may reflect compensatory adaptations to serotonin-lowering effects of prior antidepressant use. Authors of one meta-analysis also highlighted evidence of 5-HIAA levels being reduced after long-term antidepressant treatment. These findings suggest that in the long-term antidepressants might produce compensatory changes that are opposite to their acute effects. Lowered serotonin availability has also been demonstrated in animal studies following prolonged antidepressant administration. Further research is required to clarify the effects of different drugs on neurochemical systems, including the serotonin system, especially during and after long-term use, as well as the physical and psychological consequences of such effects.
This review suggests that the huge research effort based on the serotonin hypothesis has not produced convincing evidence of a biochemical basis to depression. This is consistent with research on many other biological markers. We suggest it is time to acknowledge that the serotonin theory of depression is not empirically substantiated.
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