Mental Health, Wellness / Self-Care

New study shows Depression is not due to chemical imbalance

What does that mean for antidepressants?

words by: Sahar Khraibani
Aug 5, 2022

Since the 1990s, there has been a sharp increase in the number of antidepressant prescriptions, with an average 1-in-6 adults now being prescribed them. Worldwide, millions more people regularly take antidepressants.


Many people have been under the impression that depression stems from a biochemical cause. However, after a major study published recently in the journal, Molecular Psychiatry, it showed no clear evidence that a chemical imbalance in the form of low serotonin levels cause depression, and scientists questioned the widespread usage of antidepressants.


Joanna Moncrieff, professor of psychiatry at University College London shares information on “how to take the news that depression has not been shown to be caused by a chemical imbalance.” In it she states: “Many people taking antidepressants today have been told by their doctor that they have a chemical imbalance and that the antidepressant will help put that right. If that is you, you might well feel shocked and upset by the news that the suggested links between depression and low serotonin have not in fact been demonstrated. You might wonder what the antidepressant is doing to your brain if it is not correcting an underlying imbalance.”


Side effects due to the usage of antidepressants affect thousands of people in ways that are both big and small, yet prescription rates for the drugs keep rising. This situation has been influenced in part by the myth that depression is brought on by a chemical imbalance. And though this recent study has just opened the door for a deeper understanding of what the biochemical relation to depression is, some other experts in psychiatry have expressed doubt in the study and urged people not to abruptly stop taking their medication in light of this arguing that antidepressants remained effective on some level.


Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which make up the majority of antidepressants, were first thought to function by restoring unusually low serotonin levels. The analysis examined tens of thousands of people and looked at the levels of serotonin in the brain. One of the conclusions was that there was no difference between healthy people and people with depression in the levels of serotonin and its breakdown products in the blood or brain.


This, coupled with other studies that looked at the effects of stressful live events, led scientists to the deduction that external events are just as big of factors as chemical imbalance was thought to be.


This is surely a beginning of a series of discoveries about the human brain and how it functions, and while this news may be life changing for many, it still needs more time for it to take traction in the mental health world.


In case you missed it, here’s 5 mindless habits that cause anxiety.


Photo via Scott Rothstein/Getty