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Low serotonin may not lead to depression after all

Image of woman taking a tablet
danilo.alvesd | Unsplash

News round-up by Conor D'Andrade

Since the 1980s, psychiatrists have prescribed people with depression drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

These drugs reduce the reabsorption of a molecule in the brain called serotonin which has, for a long time, been thought to play a role in mood and emotions.

But now, a new study from University College London suggests that there is little evidence to support low levels of serotonin causing depression.

Known as a meta-analysis, the study analysed data from 17 different studies and reviews which included hundreds of thousands of participants either diagnosed with depression or not.

Due to the difficulty of measuring levels of serotonin in the brain, researchers had to measure other indicators of serotonin levels.

This included measuring the volume and activity of serotonin receptors in the brain, the number of genes coding for the breakdown of serotonin, and the number of molecules present in cerebrospinal fluid that resulted from serotonin breakdown.

Surprisingly the results found that there was little evidence between low levels of serotonin and being diagnosed with depression.

Lead researcher Joanna Moncrieff said that “the implication of our paper is that we do not know what [SSRI] antidepressants are doing,” with one possibility being that their effectiveness has been due to a placebo effect.

However, other researchers have been keen to question the validity of this analysis.

“It is key to separately analyse data from studies that examine the same patients when ill and when in remission, to have optimal conditions to examine the hypothesis,” said Johan Lundberg from the Karolinska Institute, referring to the fact the study failed to distinguish between people experiencing chronic (continuous) depression and those that have episodes of depression.

Paul Albert of the University of Ottawa also shared his concerns, stating: “It must be recognised that [serotonin] is likely only one contributor to depression.

"Given the large placebo effect in treatment of depression, it is likely that the contribution of other systems, including dopamine that is implicated in the placebo effect, may be greater than that of [serotonin].”

Finally, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Psychiatrists said in response to the results: “Antidepressants are an effective, NICE-recommended treatment for depression that can also be prescribed for a range of physical and mental health conditions.

"Antidepressants will vary in effectiveness for different people, and the reasons for this are complex. We would not recommend for anyone to stop taking their antidepressants based on this review, and encourage anyone with concerns about their medication to contact their physician.”

Long waiting lists resulting in shockingly high rates of suicidal ideation in young people

Thousands of children and young people have attempted to take their own lives while on waiting lists for mental health treatment, according to a survey published by YoungMinds.

The charity found that 26% of 14,000 respondents had tried to do so while waiting to access the help they needed, with 44% saying they had to wait for over a month after seeking support for their mental health.

A further 9% reported being turned away from treatment.

Unsurprisingly, 58% felt their mental health had worsened while waiting for support and 71% reported that their relationships with family and friends had been strained due to the issues caused by waiting for treatment.

Worryingly, the survey also found that 37% of respondents felt their GP didn’t provide appropriate support when they attempted to access treatment or advice.

“These numbers paint a shocking picture of the situation young people in this country face when it comes to their mental health," said chief executive of YoungMinds, Emma Thomas.

“We have also seen this reflected in calls to our parents’ helpline, with an increasing number of people saying their child has attempted to take their own life and still isn’t receiving the right care.

“For years, politicians have promised that they will get a grip of the situation, including a recent commitment to a 10-year plan," added Thomas. “But the reality is that with every month of inaction, things are getting rapidly worse for young people."

Can vitamin B supplements fend off depression and anxiety?

Vitamin B supplements, and perhaps even Marmite, may be able to reduce depression and anxiety, according to new research published by the University of Reading.

The research suggests that the high concentration of B vitamins contained within the yeast extract, specifically B6, results in lower levels of stress and anxiety.

Over 300 participants aged on average 23 were split into three treatment groups – one group took B6 supplements (50x over the recommended daily amount), another took B12 supplements, and the final group took a placebo for a month.

The results found that those who were taking B6 supplements reported significantly fewer feelings of anxiety and depression when compared with the B12 and placebo groups.

This may be due to the fact that B6 led to increased levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is an extremely important molecule that prevents the activation of brain cells.

“Vitamin B6 helps the body produce a specific chemical messenger that inhibits impulses in the brain, and our study links this calming effect with reduced anxiety among the participants," explained lead researcher Dr David Field.

“It is important to acknowledge that this research is at an early stage and the effect of vitamin B6 on anxiety in our study was quite small compared to what you would expect from medication.

"However, nutrition-based interventions produce far fewer unpleasant side effects than drugs, and so in the future people might prefer them as an intervention.”

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