In this month’s message, I want to talk about the media and the public’s view on neuropharmacological interventions. As experts within the field, it is extremely important that we share the scientific progress and the knowledge with the public, but it is also important to constantly remind ourselves and our clinical colleagues to be careful about how we argue for the use of CNS active drugs.
A recent example of how this can go awry is the publication in the highly esteemed medical journal Molecular Psychiatry, in which Joanna Moncrieff and colleagues review data to either support or refute the “monoamine hypothesis” from the 60s, which holds that major depressive disorder is associated with low brain serotonin. In spite of the fact that until now we have not had any reliable way to measure brain serotonin levels or serotonin release capacity, they build their arguments on selected and circumstantial evidence to say that the “serotonin hypothesis is refuted”. This statement led to headlines in the news such as: “Little evidence that chemical imbalance causes depression, UCL scientists find”, “Researchers question use of antidepressants, prescribed to one in six UK adults”, and “Scientists have called into question the widespread use of antidepressants after a major review found no clear evidence that low serotonin levels are responsible for depression.”
The authors justify the need for such a review by saying that it is a public misconception that depression is caused by low brain serotonin. The real misconception is, however, that depression is a single disease explained by a single biochemical deficit when today it is largely accepted that depression is a heterogeneous disorder with potentially multiple underlying causes. Moreover, the possible role of altered serotonin in (some types of) depression is a separate question from the antidepressant effects of SSRIs.
Nevertheless, the uptake by the media – and likely by many patients and relatives – shows how careful one must be when explaining scientific findings to journalists and patients. Unfortunately, simple messages are hard to wipe out. It is easy to point fingers at commercials from the 60s advocating for antidepressants, but the truth is that such oversimplifications tend to stick in the public’s memory for decades after the field has moved on.
The ECNP Press office can help with media enquiries on most topics including psychiatry and clinical neuroscience. As an active scientist, you can also help disseminate updated knowledge to the public through social media, such as Twitter or LinkedIn. If you need assistance or advice in this area, let us know. We’d be happy to do what we can to try to help!
Finally, I hope you have enjoyed a relaxing summer – and I look forward to meet you at the upcoming ECNP Congress in Vienna in October.