It’s pretty well established that antidepressants can help people who are depressed. But the drug is often prescribed to help people who don’t suffer from this specific mental illness—and it may actually be hurting their brain. Certain types of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) actually affect the brain differently depending on if you’re clinically depressed or not, according to a new study in Neuropharmacology.
Researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center gave Zoloft, a popular SSRI, to two groups of female monkeys one which was depressed and one which not. After 18 months—the monkey equivalent of five human years—they scanned the primates’ brains and discovered that the drug changed both group’s brain structure—but in very different ways. (Your Antidepressants May Also Be Messing With Your Morals.)
Monkeys who were depressed at the beginning of the study had an enlarged anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), part of the brain responsible for resolving difficult emotions like depression. This indicated that the drug helped improve their mood, as a larger ACC is commonly associated with less depressive symptoms. The non-depressed monkeys, however, showed shrinkage in that same area, suggesting that the antidepressant had the opposite effect, making them less able to deal with hard emotions. (Need some help? Learn How to Overcome Life’s Toughest Situations.)
All of this would be just funny monkey business except for the fact that doctors routinely prescribe Zoloft and other SSRIs for reasons other than depression, said lead study author Carol A. Shively, Ph.D., professor of pathology-comparative medicine at Wake Forest Baptist. Zoloft is often commonly prescribed for things like bulimia, anxiety, hot flashes, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, stroke recovery, and even sexual dysfunction. So, she explained, in an effort to help a patient with one problem like anxiety, the antidepressant may actually be giving them another, like depression. (Yikes! Be sure you also check out these 4 Scary Side Effects of Common Drugs.)
In addition, the American Psychiatric Association has said that this type of off-label use is leading to an epidemic of over-prescribing antidepressants. “Psychotropic drugs are valuable tools in treating many mental health disorders, but inappropriate prescribing can cause serious harm,” they state. “To help address those concerns, APA is developing clinical treatment guidelines that will help educate physicians, health insurers, and the public about the best treatments available for common mental health disorders.”
But while she called the evidence from her study compelling, Shively added that more research needs to be done, particularly on human brains before any real conclusions can be made. And if you’re already taking an antidepressant for reasons other than depression? The APA says it’s important to keep taking it until you can talk to your doctor as suddenly starting or stopping psychiatric medication can have devastating effects.