Since the ’80s, the story of a chemical imbalance brought on by low serotonin has remained very popular.
“I don’t know of any story that has supplanted it,” says Alan Frazer, a researcher who studies how antidepressant medications work. He is also chairman of the pharmacology department at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
“It definitely continues to live — absolutely,” agrees his colleague Pedro Delgado, the chair of the psychiatry department at UT. “If you go to your community doctor, you’re likely to hear some version of that.”
“Chemical imbalance is sort of last-century thinking. It’s much more complicated than that,” says Dr. Joseph Coyle, a professor of neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. “It’s really an outmoded way of thinking.”
Coyle, who is also the editor of the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, says that though serotonin plays a role in depression, low serotonin is likely not the cause of depression. Scientific thinking has clearly shifted, he says.
Still, the story of serotonin remains. Why does it continue to have such a powerful grip on the popular imagination?
Almost as soon as it was introduced in 1987, the antidepressant Prozac, which selectively targets the chemical serotonin, became a blockbuster. “Prozac just blew everything else out of the water,” Frazer says.
This had less to do with the efficacy of Prozac (it is not better at treating depression than tricyclics, the earlier generation of antidepressants) than with the fact that the drug had relatively few side effects.
The whole story here by Alix Speigel