Chemical Imbalances and Depression

November 17, 2014

Hodges - Chemical Imbalances and Depression

Hodges - Chemical Imbalances and Depression

BCC Staff Note: You’re reading the first of a four-part, week-long blog mini-series by Charles D. Hodges, Jr., M.D. These posts will follow the theme related to the use of research in our thinking about life struggles. Dr. Hodges is a family physician who practices medicine in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a graduate of the Indiana University School of Medicine, board certified in Family Medicine and Geriatrics, and is a licensed marital family therapist. Dr. Hodges is also a trained biblical counselor who has been counseling people with mood problems and other family issues for twenty-five years. You can learn more about Dr. Hodges and his book, Good Mood Bad Mood at his website here. You can also view Dr. Hodges’ plenary presentation at the Annual Conference of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) at their blog site here. Today’s blog is re-posted by the BCC with Dr. Hodges’ permission, and you can also read the original post on his site here.

Interesting News in Medical Research

There is interesting news in the field of medical research for depression.[i] I am always grateful when medical researchers take another look at a significant problem in life when the current answers don’t seem to work well. This is so true of depression. People do struggle with real sadness today and the answers that medicine offers are just not working as well as hoped.

Research in the past decade has told us that the most popular medicines we have for depression do not work very well for up to 80% of the people who take them.[ii] There is a growing sense that the diagnosis of depression is made too often. It is also a concern that normal sadness over loss is being confused with the disease depression.[iii]

Today, most all of us know or have heard about chemical imbalances and how they are supposed to cause depression. Most of us have heard about serotonin and how a low level of it in our brains can cause us to be depressed. We have seen the commercials on television for medications that are supposed to correct the deficit. But, new research would indicate that the chemical serotonin may have little or nothing to do with depression at all.

Researchers at the Wayne State University School of Medicine noticed that 60 to 70 percent of patients who take the serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants will still feel depressed. And so they devised a research project that would look again at the role serotonin and chemical imbalances play in depression. What they found indicated that serotonin may not be a major factor in depression.[iv]

Keep mind that the study was done on mice. They were found to have a gene that resulted in them making very little serotonin in their brains.  And no you do not need to remind me that we are men and not mice. But, these mice with little brain serotonin did not display a depression-like behavior pattern under normal circumstances. When they were subjected to the same kinds of situations that caused behavior that looked like depression in animals, these mice responded just like normal mice that had normal levels of serotonin. Most of the genetically serotonin deficient mice did not respond to the SSRI antidepressants in the same way normal mice did with changes in their “depression-like” behavior.

The conclusions from the study were that it is likely that serotonin may not be a large factor in depression. In essence the chemical imbalance/ serotonin deficiency theory of depression is most likely wrong. While this is not great news for those who are invested heavily in the production and sale of the current crop of antidepressants, it is good news for patients.

Why This Is Good News

The reason it is great news is the last line in the article. “These results could dramatically alter how the search for new antidepressants moves forward in the future, the researchers conclude.” In other words, science is moving on to look for a better way to explain why some struggle with sadness. The outcome could be a better understanding of the cause at the brain cell level of the disordered sadness part of depression today.

This could result in laboratory testing and brain scanning that would allow us to make a better diagnosis. And, that could lead to more effective treatment. This study opens the door for researchers to resume looking for a real explanation for the disordered sadness of depression.

When we understand the change in the human brain or body that causes depression two things could happen. The diagnosis of depression will become far more accurate reducing the numbers of people over-diagnosed. And, a better treatment could be found for those who suffer with severe, disordered sadness.

For the 90% of patients today with normal sadness over loss, accurate testing could help them avoid from being treated with medicine intended for the treatment of disease. Having a test that says the patient does not have depression would help doctors encourage patients to seek care that fit their problem such as counseling.  And that is where Biblical counseling can offer great hope.

Join the Conversation (Added by the BCC Staff)

What role should medical research play in our understanding of treatment for depression?

How does the study reported on in this blog impact your understanding of the cause of depression?


[i]American Chemical Society. “Serotonin deficiency? Study throws into question long-held belief about depression.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 August 2014.

[ii]Charles Hodges M.D., Good Mood Bad Mood.  Shepherd Press: Wapwallopen, PA, 2013, 48-49.

[iii]Ibid., 68-69.

[iv]Mariana Angoa-Pérez, Michael J. Kane, Denise I. Briggs, Nieves Herrera-Mundo, Catherine E. Sykes, Dina M. Francescutti, Donald M. Kuhn. “Mice Genetically Depleted of Brain Serotonin Do Not Display a Depression-like Behavioral Phenotype.” ACS Chemical Neuroscience, 2014; 140812102725008 DOI: 10.1021/cn500096g

One thought on “Chemical Imbalances and Depression

  1. if chemical imbalance is most likely not the major player in depression, could this mean that all cases of depression are not necessarily a “disease” but a severe sadness that can be treated with the right psychotherapy or counselling models…or even a change of lifestyle altogether?and if so
    is it correct to consider depression as partly spiritual i.e demonic and that can be cast out?

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