A study on depression creates controversy

Depression study sparks controversy


The interest of antidepressants would be called into question because depression is not linked to a chemical imbalance. The thesis, recently defended by a British psychiatrist, is widely disputed, but this controversy has the advantage of illustrating the difficulties in understanding this disease. 

“Our study (…) calls into question the basic idea behind the use of antidepressants”, affirmed at the end of July the psychiatrists Joanna Moncrieff and Mark Horowitz on the site The Conversation, relaying a work published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

This study attacks the serotonin hypothesis. This suggests that depression is linked to a deficiency of this molecule involved in the transmission of emotions in the brain.

The work, based on a compilation of previous publications and therefore a priori more solid than an isolated study, concludes that no link has been proven between a deficit of serotonin and the presence of depression in an individual.


For its authors, it is a profound questioning of a hypothesis that has served for decades as a framework for numerous studies. The majority of current antidepressants have indeed been developed to act on serotonin levels.

But many critics quickly targeted this study and, even more, the presentation made by Joanna Moncrieff, a psychiatrist known for her skepticism towards biological explanations of depression, as well as her radical speech against the pharmaceutical industry. /p>

“Serotonin” by Houellebecq

“Overall, I agree with the authors' conclusions, but I would not have such inflexible certainties,” commented British psychiatrist Phil Cowen, in a reaction to the Science Media Center.

The Criticisms of Phil Cowen and other colleagues are of different orders. Some question the methodology of the study, in particular the fact of not measuring serotonin directly, but an indirect trace of it; others accept his conclusions, but reject their novelty.

“No mental health specialist would currently support the idea that a pathology as complex as depression is explained by the deficiency of a single neurotransmitter,” notes Mr. Cowen.

L he argument does not hold for Ms. Moncrieff, according to whom the serotonin hypothesis, even in a reduced version, still holds an important place in the discourse of psychiatrists.

“And above all, even if eminent psychiatrists are beginning to doubt the links between depression and serotonin deficiency, no one has warned the general public”, ironically on her blog the author, who appears to break with “dominant psychiatry”.

< p>The links between depression and serotonin are, in fact, well anchored in popular imagery. In 2019, the French author Michel Houellebecq thus entitled “Sérotonine” a novel whose main character is depressed. 

Efficacy of treatments

But it is not the questioning of the serotonin hypothesis that is attracting the strongest criticism. It is the fact that Joanna Moncrieff makes an argument against current antidepressants, going beyond the conclusions of her own study.

This “is a serious work, which is part of the continuation of other works and which counts in the discussion between experts concerning the mechanisms of depression”, admits to AFP the Swiss psychiatrist Michel Hofmann.

“But I do not think that this is an article which should have a short-term impact on the prescription of antidepressants,” he warns.

Because for Ms. Moncrieff – who certainly warned that antidepressants should not be abruptly interrupted at any price -, one must necessarily doubt the benefits of treatments developed on the basis of a questioned hypothesis.

< p>However, many psychiatrists, including Mr. Hofmann, point out that the effectiveness of these treatments, whatever the root cause, has been scientifically evaluated. 

“The mechanisms of the drugs that we use in the treatment of depression are generally multiple and finally, in most cases, we do not know precisely what makes the effectiveness of a treatment”, he explains.

Ultimately, debates over the role of serotonin only illustrate how difficult it is to understand the biological and social mechanisms of a disease as complex as depression, forcing researchers to based on models that are by nature incomplete.

“We stick to hypotheses and continue to seek r and testing models against each other,” concludes Hofmann.