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October 28, 2022 • Brooke Siem

The struggle to kill the serotonin theory of depression in a world of political nonsense

No doubt you’ve heard of last week’s bombshell analysis definitively debunking the serotonin imbalance theory of depression, the age old myth suggesting that depression is caused by low serotonin levels in the brain. Published in Nature, one of the most respected journals in the world, and written by outstanding researchers including psychiatrist Joanna Moncrieff, this study should have put the nail in the coffin for every single article, news segment, or pharma ad suggesting that “depression is likely caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.”

And yet, because we live in a world run by clowns, what should have been a joyous day for everyone who didn’t feel better after being sold a drug to correct their nonexistent chemical imbalance was turned into a circus of left vs. right politics, effectively eclipsing the actual purpose of the study and robbing people of important information in the process. 

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But before we get to what happened last week, we need to go back. Although this study went viral, the information in it isn’t new (which oddly, has been a criticism against the work.) The chemical imbalance theory of depression has long been viewed as a flimsy theory amongst researchers and decent, well-informed practitioners. The idea that a few brain chemicals are solely responsible for all the world’s mental health issues is far too simple of an explanation, and it has long been dismissed. (For more on this, check out my five-part series on debunking the chemical imbalance theory of depression, issues 50-54 in the HIAS archive.)

This isn’t to say that biological factors might play some direct role in depression, but there’s no current research that gives us any hard evidence (and no way to measure neurotransmitter actions in real time.) Because we know that everything affects brain chemistry, from hugs to chocolate to trauma, we can assume that depression is associated with biological activity as well. But is that enough to continue justifing a multi-billion dollar industry specifically claiming that SSRIs, selective serotoninreuptake inhibitors, work to alleviate depression by increasing serotonin levels in the brain? Maybe not, especially given that antidepressants, SSRIs included, are less effective over time, create dependence, and can be extremely difficult to get off of. 

Some version of this should have been the news coverage. The copy writes itself: “A significant study, reviewing of hundreds of thousands patients, has shown that low serotonin levels are an unlikely cause of depression, effectively putting into question the last twenty years of antidepressant prescribing practices, the general public’s understanding of their own health, and drug marketing strategies.” Couple it with the news that the amyloid hypothesis, the leading theory for Alzheimer’s disease that emerged from a “groundbreaking” 2006 study, is under investigation for research fraud, and you’ve got a juicy story about how flawed medical theories go on to cost governments billions of dollars while harming millions of people. 

Instead, we’ve got Tucker Carlson spewing on Fox News and the left media missing the point as a response to Carlson’s coverage. Despite an international media frenzy over the serotonin analysis, American mainstream media stayed curiously quiet last week. It took Carlson’s commentary to get the media machine turning, but because Carlson is a sensationalist personality who’s objectively wrong a lot, what came out of the response wasn’t a balanced analysis or commentary on the paper. Instead, we got bullshit like HuffPost’s “Why the right is going after antidepressants” and Rolling Stone’s “Who Is the Psychiatrist Behind the Antidepressant Study Taking Over Right-Wing Media?” Both of these articles dismiss the findings and instead focus on the right-wing media’s questioning of antidepressants’ role in school shootings and Moncrieff’s criticisms of Covid vaccine mandates. So now, important research isn’t getting balanced coverage in the US because every major “news” organization is too busy jerking themselves off to their own ideology. 

So that’s where we’re at. The left spends two years yelling “but science!” to justify pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, only to turn around and dismiss it when it doesn’t align with their agenda. Meanwhile, the right spotlights an extremely small, undocumented correlation between antidepressants and youth gun violence to bolster their scheme. In either case, it’s the general public that loses, because depression and antidepressant withdrawal doesn’t care about your politics. 


Lest I be one of those people who bitches without providing solution, here are links to an international collection of actually useful articles that are more likely help people manage their own health. 

“A Decisive Blow to the Serotonin Hypothesis of Depression” by Psychology Today

What a new study on depression does – and does not – tell us about antidepressants and serotonin” by The Independent (UK)

Response to Criticism of Our Chemical Imbalance Paper, Part I and Part II at Mad in the UK

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