By Gary Greenberg – Discover Vol. 22 No. 7 July 2001
Psychotherapists love to argue. We argue about treatment theories, about our clients and their families, about the office coffeepot. And during the past decade we have tended to fixate, as we say in the business, on the subject of Prozac.
It used to be fairly easy to agree about commonly prescribed psychiatric drugs such as Valium: They anesthetized people, covered up problems, illegitimately took the place of therapy. But Prozac and the other antidepressants that work by enhancing serotonin activity in the brain have eluded such easy criticism.
Often we would find that our clients who took them felt more alive, more resilient, more able to engage in the honest self-reflection necessary to therapy. And we could not help but agree with Peter Kramer, who wrote in Listening to Prozac that the drug can remake the self – which was supposed to be our job.
Therapists haven’t been alone in their Prozac anxiety. Americans have always been ambivalent about mind-altering drugs, and many wonder if it is a good thing that today some 30 million Americans — many of them not clinically depressed but rather among the “worried well” — have taken serotonin enhancers at one time or another.
But other issues are more troubling, like the serious side effects — which include violent impulses, agitation, and sexual dysfunction — that have been reported since the drugs first appeared and have never been fully confirmed or disproved.
What’s perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that 15 years after the first of the serotonin enhancers — Prozac — was put on the market, the precise reason why they relieve depression remains unknown.
Some scientists, however, think they are on the verge of solving this mystery, suggesting that serotonin enhancers may work by encouraging the growth of new brain cells. At the same time, other researchers have found that high doses of these drugs cause changes in neurons that some would call brain damage — a finding that may have some bearing on the range of reported side effects.
And both sets of research point to the possibility that serotonin enhancers alter brains in ways researchers never imagined.
Serotonin, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), was first isolated in 1933, when it was discovered in the gut and called enteramine. In 1947 it was found in blood platelets, and the molecule earned its current name, serotonin, when it also proved to constrict blood vessels. Soon after, serotonin was identified in the brain. But its role was unknown until some drug tests in the 1950s drew unexpected results.
In 1975 a group at Eli Lilly quietly reported that they had synthesized 110140, a substance that targeted serotonin with precision. Eleven years later, 110140 became Prozac, one of the most successful drugs ever brought to market, responsible in 1999 for 26 percent of the revenues of one of the largest companies in the United States.
Drugs like Prozac work by interfering with the metabolism of the brain.
Serotonin travels from one neuron to another by crossing a gap known as a synapse. Normally, once the receiving neuron is activated, the chemical is reabsorbed by the brain. But Prozac prevents this reabsorption, allowing serotonin to remain in the synapse and interact with its targets for much longer than it otherwise would.
Yet a crucial question remains: We simply don’t know why having a synaptic lake brimming with serotonin makes people happier. While there is evidence that some depressed people have lower levels of serotonin breakdown products in their spinal fluid and different brain anatomies from the overall population, the proof of the commonly held notion that a deficiency or imbalance in the serotonin system causes depression remains weak.
Nor is it known why the drugs generally take three to six weeks to alter mood, why they help people with nondepression-related problems like shyness or compulsiveness, why people who were not depressed in the first place sometimes feel “better than well,” or why the drugs sometimes lose their efficacy over the long term.
Despite gaps in our knowledge, the post-Prozac era has seen the rise of a singular idea, one that can be called mythic for both its explanatory power and its lack of evidence — depression is best understood and treated as a biochemical aberration for which drugs like Prozac are the silver bullets.
Adult monkeys routinely grow new brain cells, a process known as neurogenesis. There is an emerging body of evidence that people, too, undergo neurogenesis throughout their lives. The discovery is provocative because neurogenesis seems most prevalent in the hippocampus — a region of the brain associated with learning, memory, and, perhaps, emotion.
Psychologists have found that stress can often trigger depression. And stress floods the brain with certain hormones (glucocorticoids) that are known to suppress neurogenesis or even kill neurons, especially in an area of the hippocampus known as the dentate gyrus.
Studies have found that depressed patients have somewhat smaller hippocampi than nondepressed people. Moreover, patients with diseases like Cushing’s syndrome and temporal lobe epilepsy that cause cell loss in the hippocampus have a much higher risk of depression than the rest of the population.
And it takes about three to six weeks for new cells to mature — the same time it takes serotonin-enhancing drugs to make a difference in a patient. Add all this evidence up and you have, the leading candidate” for understanding what happens in the brains of depressed people and why drugs like Prozac help them.
Perhaps people get depressed when chronic or acute stress brings about “the death of neurons or the failure to grow new neurons. People dwell on negative things and are incapable of forming new cognition about the future being positive and things getting better — until they have the ability to grow new neurons that mediate this new cognition. While nobody knows for sure what these new cells do in humans, a recent study in rats found the newborn neurons were crucial for forming certain kinds of memories.
You have to accept that there is a structural change in your brain when you take drugs like Prozac. If people aren’t comfortable with that, that’s something else to consider.
Harvard psychiatrist Joseph Glenmullen finds such brain-altering effects more unsettling than intriguing.