For the longest time, we thought that depression was caused by a chemical imbalance in our brains. Scientists, doctors, and psychologists thought that a lower level of serotonin in our brain was the leading cause of depression.
Recently, a new study from the University College London (UCL) shows that negative life events are responsible for depression, and not the low serotonin levels, as thought before.
Throughout the years, the concept of depression was studied, changed, and adapted by hundreds of researchers. First, in the 19th century, it was called “melancholia.” Then, in the 1930s, scientists started calling it depression. In the 1950s, depression was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a mental disorder. Ever since, numerous studies have tried to shed some light on this disorder, understand it and find the proper treatment.
By the middle of the 20th century, antidepressant medication appeared, creating a total shift in how psychiatrists and other professionals treated depression. Little by little, antidepressants became an efficient way of dealing with depression. Having great results with medication, altering the brain’s secretion of neurotransmitters leads to the possible biological and genetic cause behind this disorder. And this is how the low levels of serotonin were thought to cause depression.
The newest research conducted by UCL scientists has concluded that the lack of serotonin is not the root cause of depression. The study shows that negative life events can and will influence our mood and are the triggering cause of this disorder.
This new finding is an immense milestone in understanding and treating depression and can generate a shift in the medical approach.
“I think we can safely say that after a vast amount of research conducted over several decades, there is no convincing evidence that depression is caused by serotonin abnormalities, particularly by lower levels or reduced activity of serotonin,” said Joanna Moncrieff, professor of Psychiatry at UCL.
The latest conclusion about depression can be helpful not only for the medical world but also for the patients. People diagnosed with depression were told that their disorder comes from imbalanced hormones, so they trained their minds to link their evolution to the antidepressants prescribed. Also, there is evidence that patients who believe their mood is influenced by the chemicals in their brain are less optimistic about managing their mood without medical help or medication.
To prove their hypothesis, dr. Mark Horowitz and prof. Joanna Moncrieff studied the depression levels in patients whose serotonin levels were reduced artificially. The conclusion is that the serotonin levels did not influence depression levels. At the same time, stressful life events are directly correlated with the level of depression. The more stressful the life event, the more depressed was the subject.
“I had been taught that depression was caused by low serotonin in my psychiatry training and had even taught this to students in my own lectures. Being involved in this research was eye-opening and feels like everything I thought I knew has been flipped upside down.
One interesting aspect in the studies we examined was how strong an effect adverse life events played in depression, suggesting low mood is a response to people’s lives and cannot be boiled down to a simple chemical equation.” said dr. Mark Horowitz, co-author of the UCL review.
The UCL study doesn’t imply we should throw away antidepressants but sets the urge for new studies that show us how to properly use medication to actually help depressed patients, not just by simply increasing serotonin levels.
The more we understand depression and talk about it, the more we normalize it, and together with this normalization, we make the distinction between human beings and robots. We are made out of flesh, bones, and soul. We are not only machines that execute tasks or to-do lists and achieve goals set by society, education, or our huge expectations. We are affected by whatever happens in our lives, and, at the same time, we can affect the ones around us with our attitudes. Yes, sometimes unfortunate events take place in our lives, and while we cannot avoid all of them, at least we can try to avoid triggering sad events in other people’s lives.