Editorials

Serotonin and depression

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h1771 (Published 21 April 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h1771
  1. David Healy, professor of psychiatry
  1. 1Hergest Unit, Bangor LL57 2PW, UK
  1. david.healy54{at}googlemail.com

The marketing of a myth

The serotonin reuptake inhibiting (SSRI) group of drugs came on stream in the late 1980s, nearly two decades after first being mooted. The delay centred on finding an indication. They did not have hoped for lucrative antihypertensive or antiobesity profiles. A 1960s idea that serotonin concentrations might be lowered in depression1 had been rejected,2 and in clinical trials the SSRIs lost out to the older tricyclic antidepressants as a treatment for severe depression (melancholia).3 4 5

When concerns emerged about tranquilliser dependence in the early 1980s, an attempt was made to supplant benzodiazepines with a serotonergic drug, buspirone, marketed as a non-dependence producing anxiolytic. This flopped.6 The lessons seemed to be that patients expected tranquillisers to have an immediate effect and doctors expected them to produce dependence. It was not possible to detoxify the tranquilliser brand.

Instead, drug companies marketed SSRIs for depression, even though they were weaker than older tricyclic antidepressants, and sold the idea that depression was the deeper illness behind the superficial manifestations of anxiety. The approach was an astonishing success, central to which was the notion that SSRIs restored serotonin levels to normal, a notion that later transmuted into the idea that they remedied …

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