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What Does the Depression Serotonin Study Mean for Me?

After a depression serotonin study went viral this summer, many people worried about the impact of the findings on their depression treatment. Let’s look into the results and compare them to another major study published shortly beforehand.

The Viral Depression Serotonin Study

On 20 July 2022, the scientific journal Molecular Psychiatry published a systematic umbrella review that examined whether serotonin levels caused depression. Researchers examined 17 studies. They found little data supporting the serotonin deficiency hypothesis of depression. The data they found in support conflicted with each other. Some studies showed that the control group—people without depression—display the same serotonin levels as the treatment group.

It’s important to note that the researchers looked at all these studies, but they didn’t perform a meta-analysis of any data themselves. This doesn’t invalidate the findings, but it potentially changes the weight of the conclusions.

The Contrasting Depression Serotonin Study

Though the previous depression serotonin study went viral, another major study on the topic of serotonin and depression came out nine days earlier, posing conflicting results. A meta-analysis published in the scientific journal Transitional Psychiatry looked into the connection between the 5-HTTLPR genes and depression. These genes are largely responsible for serotonin transportation, from the production site to the receptor and back for recycling. Researchers combined data from 22 studies. They attempted to find mitigating factors between serotonin and depression.

The meta-analysis found that two factors heavily influenced the effect of the 5-HTTLPR genes on depression. Stress is the first factor. As stress gets longer, 5-HTTLPR and depression occur more often together. The connection was further influenced by the second factor: the amount of time between chronic stress and the depression assessment. After one year, the impact of stress on the 5-HTTLPR and depression decreases.

Understanding the Findings of These Studies

Many people took the systematic umbrella review as definitive proof that the serotonin hypothesis is entirely false. The message flooded news sources and social media. People suggested that individuals should stop their selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) because they’re useless.

We cannot stress this enough: do not do that. Firstly, nobody should stop medications without consulting their doctor first. Secondly, if correct, the conclusions mean that we don’t understand the mechanisms by which these medications work. Still, it doesn’t mean they aren’t still effective.

Moreover, the meta-analysis results paint a more detailed picture of the first study’s findings. We can better understand the conflicting data by looking at lurking variables. It’s probably not that serotonin is completely uninvolved in depression. More likely, combining both studies, depression comes from multiple factors, including the 5-HTTLPR gene variation, severe chronic stress, and time. It isn’t a simple serotonin deficiency-depression relationship.

How Does This Impact You?

The uncertainty of depression’s cause shouldn’t impact your treatment too much. At many facilities, trauma and chronic stress are already treated as factors in depression. They may just get a little more attention than before in therapy. Additionally, as we discussed before, SSRIs and SNRIs are still effective treatments. You may get prescribed these in addition to your psychotherapies.

In July of 2022, a study on the serotonin theory of depression went viral. People claimed that it completely debunked the theory. As discussed in this blog, it isn’t that clear-cut. Another major study published nine days before laid out a more complex view of the serotonin theory that centered on chronic stress. At The Guest House, our treatments already include trauma and chronic stress as central causes of mental illness. To start comprehensive depression treatment, please contact us at (855) 483-7800.