We at psych2go have prepared a handy list of facts about the relationship between serotonin and depression because we noticed some people were confused about how the two are related. Are there differences between male and female? Where is serotonin made? What are SSRIs? Neurotransmitters such as serotonin can be very confusing, and there are many myths about them, but we are here to help you out!
What is it?
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a type of chemical that functions in processing signals within the brain. It helps to bring signals from one area to another. There are many different neutransmitters with many different functions.
What does it do?
It’s quite hard to define what the exact function is, as – being a neurotransmitter – it helps with relaying many different signals, and in this way can have many different effects. Serotonin is believed to influence a variety of psychological functions, from mood, appetite, sleep, memory, even sexual desire and more physical functions.
Where is it made and where does it go?
It is made in the brain and performs its main functions there, but surprisingly, up to 90% of serotonin is found in the blood platelets and digestive tract.
What does it have to do with mental health?
Many studies point towards a relationship between imbalanced serotonin levels and depression. As a neurotransmitter if performs a variety of psychological and other bodily functions, of approximately 40 million brain cells, most of them interact with it in some way or other. In this way the substance can have effects on mood, sexual desire and function, appetite, memory, learning, sleep and others.
Possible problems of a serotonin imbalance can also extend to other things along the mental health spectrum, such as OCD, anxiety, panic attacks and even flares of anger.
Then how can an imbalance cause depression?
Some theories state that the relationship between serotonin and depression lies in the fact that serotonin is believed to have an effect on the birth and death of cells in the brain area. According to Barry Jacobs from Princeton , stress can inhibit the production of new brain cells, and that stress is a very common precipitator of depressive episodes. He researches how medication that is commonly prescribed in cases of depression, called SSRIs can help get out of the imbalance.
What is an SSRI?
SSRI stands for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor. When a signal is passed in a neuron, it will eventually reach the ‘edge’ and have to pass it on to the next. This scene is shown in the image above. When the signal reaches that site, the neuron that passes the signal (presynaptic) will release the neurotransmitter, in this case serotonin. It will ‘hang’ in between the neurons and the next neuron will ‘sense’ – with it receptors – that a signal has been given and start passing it on. The serotonin left behind is once again taken up and sometimes broken down so its parts can be reused. This happens within a fraction of a fraction of a second.
However, sometimes this reuptake process happens too quickly, not leaving enough to help reach the ‘sensing border’ (threshold) of enough serotonin to have the next neuron pass on the next signal properly. This is called an imbalance, as there isn’t enough serotonin left. What SSRIs can do is block or inhibit the reuptake sites, which slows the reuptake process, leaving more serotonin available for the next signal. Though this is what process takes place, it’s not completely clear how exactly this works on depression. But it has been researched at length, and it does help with depression in most cases.
So what are the research limitations showing?
People with depression have lower blood levels of this transmitter. However, it’s not quite clear in how these reflect the serotonin levels in the brain. It’s also uncertain if the two are strongly or weakly related. There is not yet a way to measure the levels within a living brain, so researching it is tough. It’s also not completely clear whether serotonin causes depression, or if depression causes serotonin levels to drop.
Is there a difference between people who are biologically male or female?
Yes there is actually. Biological males have slightly higher levels, but the difference is thought to be negligible. However, a 2007 study suggested that how their respective brains react to a decrease in serotonin is what makes a difference. The brains of those biologically female showed more effect from the same decrease in serotonin. This suggests it might be one of the reasons depression is more common in females.
So does serotonin play a role in causing depression or not?
Some claim it’s a myth, but that is not the right word. Some claim an imbalance definitely causes depression, but that is not right either. Research tells us that when there is a case of depression, serotonin imbalance is often present too. Whether this is the cause of or a result of depression is not quite clear yet. It is hard to research with the current technologies.
- What do you think about this? Do you think this neurotransmitter imbalance is (partly) a cause of depression or a result?
- Would you like more articles explaining how certain hormones or neurotransmitters work?
- Would you like more articles on how certain types of medication behave in the body
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