How Prozac Sent Science Inquiry Off Track

Posted on July 7, 2008  Comments (4)

I post often on examples of scientific inquiry in action. I think it is an important way to see how science works while searching for answers. The process is not a simple one, but after a solution is found it can often be presented as obvious. But while trying to find answers it is quite difficult.

How Prozac sent the science of depression in the wrong direction

But the success of Prozac hasn’t simply transformed the treatment of depression: it has also transformed the science of depression. For decades, researchers struggled to identify the underlying cause of depression, and patients were forced to endure a series of ineffective treatments. But then came Prozac. Like many other antidepressants, Prozac increases the brain’s supply of serotonin, a neurotransmitter. The drug’s effectiveness inspired an elegant theory, known as the chemical hypothesis: Sadness is simply a lack of chemical happiness. The little blue pills cheer us up because they give the brain what it has been missing.

There’s only one problem with this theory of depression: it’s almost certainly wrong, or at the very least woefully incomplete. Experiments have since shown that lowering people’s serotonin levels does not make them depressed, nor does it does not make them depressed, nor does it worsen their symptoms if they are already depressed.

In this sense, Prozac is simply a bottled version of other activities that have a similar effect, such as physical exercise.

It is jarring to think of depression in terms of atrophied brain cells, rather than an altered emotional state. It is called “depression,” after all. Yet these scientists argue that the name conceals the fundamental nature of the illness, in which the building blocks of the brain – neurons – start to crumble. This leads, over time, to the shrinking of certain brain structures, like the hippocampus, which the brain needs to function normally.

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4 Responses to “How Prozac Sent Science Inquiry Off Track”

  1. Ronald
    May 18th, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    Prozac is the world’s most widely prescribed antidepressant; it has been used by more than 35 million people worldwide. Chances are, someone you know is getting better because of it.

  2. novan
    July 31st, 2010 @ 2:15 am

    People take Prosac and any other antidepressants because they are lazy.
    The way to happiness is full self awareness, understanding of our motives, though, emotions – all that requires work. Pill seem to be an easier solution. Questionable though…

  3. angie
    July 31st, 2010 @ 2:19 am

    people need medications because they are angry – at themselves and the world around them.
    And yes, every negative emotion carries particular chemical dis-balance in our little brains.
    time to wake up! for all of us.

  4. Sasha
    July 31st, 2010 @ 2:23 am

    I must say, the best antidepressant is sex! lol
    you get so much endorphins (misspelled?) from a good session that the rest is irrelevant lol

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