More MS news articles for December 2000

Anti-Depressants May Affect Brain Structure

By Jennifer Warner

Dec. 15 (CBSHealthWatch)--Continued use of anti-depressants may lead to new cell growth in the brain. This effect may indicate that the medications produce structural as well as chemical changes in the body, according to new research.

Anti-depressants such as Prozac (fluoxetine) are commonly prescribed for depression and other mood disorders, but it is not clearly understood how the drugs work within the cells of the brain. In a study, published in the Dec. 15 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers examined the effect of several anti-depressants on the area of the brain thought to be involved in learning, memory, mood and emotion, the hippocampus.

"These drugs that are used widely for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and other stress-related disorders can have effects on the number of neurons in the brain, particularly in the hippocampus--demonstrating that there are structural alterations that can occur in response to anti-depressant treatment," says study author Ronald Duman, PhD, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Yale University.

Duman says previous research suggests that patients with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suffer from cell death and atrophy in the hippocampus, which may cause shrinkage of the area.

"What the data demonstrates then is that anti-depressants could either block or reverse that atrophy or cell loss that occurs in these illnesses," says Duman. This study was conducted on laboratory rats, but Duman says studies in both animals and humans show that the hippocampus suffers from cell loss in response to stress, and protecting the brain from such damage may alleviate the problem.

But some psychiatrists warn than any structural effect on the brain from the drugs may actually be an indication of damage.

"Whether you kill cells or cause proliferation in cells, my colleagues consider it an improvement when it is a severe abnormality," says Peter Breggin, MD, psychiatrist and co-author of the book Your Drug May be Your Problem. "If a finding like this turned up in any other organ of the body, where physicians tend to be more ethical such as the heart it would be considered reason to withdrawn the drug from the market."

"It's an arbitrary way of reinterpreting damage, and we're getting increasing evidence now that these drugs damage the brain," says Breggin. "The question is, what kind of consistent evidence will we get? We don't have that yet."

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