We’ve all heard the theory — a chemical imbalance in your brain causes depression.
Although researchers have known for years this not to be the case, some drug companies continue to repeat this simplistic and misleading claim in their marketing and advertising materials. Why the FTC or some other federal agency doesn’t crack down on this intentional misleading information is beyond me. Most researchers now believe depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
How did we come to this conclusion? Through years of additional research. But now some are jumping on the next brain bandwagon of belief — that depression is caused by a problem in the brain neuronal network.
Grohol cites Jonah Lehrer's article in the Boston Globe in which he posits that researchers now think depression comes from "brain cells shrinking and dying." Lehrer writes:
The effectiveness of Prozac, these scientists
say, has little to do with the amount of serotonin in the brain.
Rather, the drug works because it helps heal our neurons, allowing them
to grow and thrive again.
In this sense, Prozac is simply a bottled version of other
activities that have a similar effect, such as physical exercise. They
aren't happy pills, but healing pills.
If that's the case, why pay money for something that you can get for free (like exercise)? Grohol wisely counters:
another love letter to the brain scientists studying in this field, but
ignores the decades’ worth of research showing that non-medical
treatments are also effective in treating depression. Like, you know,
The obvious answer is that psychotherapy also helps in some way
to help “heal our neurons.” Which begs the question — if healing our
neurons is key, there are likely dozens of possible ways to do so. Why
only focus and mention the medical cures?
(I can't help but think here of Gianna at Beyond Meds who encourages her readers to find alternative treatments that do not involve medication.)
But Grohol is correct. Psychotherapy is immensely effective on its own. Medication can be helpful combined with psychotherapy, but as I've said before, patients should not solely rely on medication (or even supplements) as the cure-all for mental illness. In most instances, a change in behavior or thinking is required for positive progress.
On a related note, a
recent report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found
that prescriptions for antidepressants rose by 16 million within a
3-year span (2002–2005). While researchers have a new theory on the
cause of depression, the chemical imbalance myth is unlikely to die
anytime soon. The theory is entrenched in American culture, propagated
by the media, and widely accepted as fact among doctors and patients.
Lehrer might argue the rise of antidepressant prescriptions isn't a
problem since the drugs are simply "healing pills."
However, I appreciate the mention of therapy apart from medication at the end of Lehrer's piece:
While antidepressants help brain cells recover their
vigor and form new connections, [Eero Castren, a neuroscientist at the
University of Helsinki,] says that patients must still work to cement these connections in place, perhaps with therapy. He compares antidepressants with anabolic steroids, which increase muscle mass only when subjects also go to the gym.
"If you just sit on your couch, then steroids aren't going to be very effective," he says. "Antidepressants are the same way: if you want the drug to work for you, then you have to work for the drug."
Even neurologist Castren states that drugs — no matter what the
bodily cause — are no quick fix. If researchers know this, why don't
more patients believe this too?