How do antidepressants affect our brains?

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When I first came to Oxford, I was shocked and quite saddened to learn that there were so many students, some of whom were my friends, struggling with depression and other mental health issues.

Although I am fortunate enough to have never suffered from depression myself, I fully support the idea that mental health issues, including depression, are some of the most serious health-related problems we can ever face. Those who suffer from depression deserve the best possible treatment and support available—but is the solution popping some pills prescribed by a doctor? The number of prescriptions for anti-depressants has risen significantly over the last few decades—with 1 in 11 adults in the UK currently being prescribed antidepressants, do we really know how they work? Or is it just a placebo effect?

With enormous medical advances made in recent years, and the development of many amazing life-saving drugs, I often feel like the public perception towards drugs is similar to magic pills, ready to solve every problem relating to physical or mental well-being.  If only the human body were that simple. We function as a result of billions of chemical reactions occurring every second in our bodies and the effects of a drug are just the result of additional chemical reactions involving that drug. Some of these reactions produce the desired symptoms, where others may produce unwanted side-effects.

To know how antidepressants work, we must first understand how depression affects the brain. Depression is often simply explained as a “chemical imbalance” or a “serotonin deficiency”, but unfortunately it is not that simple. We are yet to form a complete understanding of both the causes of depression, and how it fully affects the brain. Consequently, we do not fully understand how exactly antidepressants improve the symptoms. The consensus however, from scientists, is that antidepressants increase the activity of certain chemicals in our brain…

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