Neuroleptic malignant syndrome (NMS) is a rare but life-threatening reaction that can occur in response to neuroleptic or antipsychotic medication. Symptoms include high fever, confusion, rigid muscles, variable blood pressure, sweating, and fast heart rate. Complications may include rhabdomyolysis, high blood potassium, kidney failure, or seizures.
Any medications within the family of neuroleptics can cause the condition, though typical antipsychotics appear to have a higher risk than atypicals, specifically first generation antipsychotics like haloperidol. Onset is often within a few weeks of starting the medication but can occur at any time. Risk factors include dehydration, agitation, and catatonia.
Rapidly decreasing the use of levodopa or other dopamine agonists, such as pramipexole, may also trigger the condition. The underlying mechanism involves blockage of dopamine receptors. Diagnosis is based on symptoms.
Management includes stopping the offending medication, rapid cooling, and starting other medications. Medications used include dantrolene, bromocriptine, and diazepam. The risk of death among those affected is about 10%. Rapid diagnosis and treatment is required to improve outcomes. Many people can eventually be restarted on a lower dose of antipsychotic.
As of 2011, among those in psychiatric hospitals on neuroleptics about 15 per 100,000 are affected per year (0.015%). In the second half of the 20th century rates were over 100 times higher at about 2% (2,000 per 100,000). Males appear to be more often affected than females. The condition was first described in 1956.
NMS was known about as early as 1956, shortly after the introduction of the first phenothiazines. NMS was first described in 1960 by French clinicians who had been working on a study involving haloperidol. They characterized the condition that was associated with the side effects of haloperidol “syndrome malin des neuroleptiques”, which was translated to neuroleptic malignant syndrome.
Signs and Symptoms
The first symptoms of neuroleptic malignant syndrome are usually muscle cramps and tremors, fever, symptoms of autonomic nervous system instability such as unstable blood pressure, and sudden changes in mental status (agitation, delirium, or coma). Once symptoms appear, they may progress rapidly and reach peak intensity in as little as three days. These symptoms can last anywhere from eight hours to forty days.
Symptoms are sometimes misinterpreted by doctors as symptoms of mental illness which can result in delayed treatment. NMS is less likely if a person has previously been stable for a period of time on antipsychotics, especially in situations where the dose has not been changed and there are no issues of noncompliance or consumption of psychoactive substances known to worsen psychosis.
Increased body temperature >38 °C (>100.4 °F);
Confused or altered consciousness;
Rigid muscles; and/or
NMS is usually caused by antipsychotic drug use, and a wide range of drugs can result in NMS. Individuals using butyrophenones (such as haloperidol and droperidol) or phenothiazines (such as promethazine and chlorpromazine) are reported to be at greatest risk. However, various atypical antipsychotics such as clozapine, olanzapine, risperidone, quetiapine, and ziprasidone have also been implicated in cases.
NMS may also occur in people taking dopaminergic drugs (such as levodopa) for Parkinson’s disease, most often when the drug dosage is abruptly reduced. In addition, other drugs with anti-dopaminergic activity, such as the antiemetic metoclopramide, can induce NMS. Tetracyclics with anti-dopaminergic activity have been linked to NMS in case reports, such as the amoxapines. Additionally, desipramine, dothiepin, phenelzine, tetrabenazine, and reserpine have been known to trigger NMS. Whether lithium can cause NMS is unclear.
At the molecular level, NMS is caused by a sudden, marked reduction in dopamine activity, either from withdrawal of dopaminergic agents or from blockade of dopamine receptors.
One of the clearest risk factors in the development of NMS is the course of drug therapy chosen to treat a condition. Use of high-potency neuroleptics, a rapid increase in the dosage of neuroleptics, and use of long-acting forms of neuroleptics are all known to increase the risk of developing NMS.
It has been purported that there is a genetic risk factor for NMS, since identical twins have both presented with NMS in one case, and a mother and two of her daughters have presented with NMS in another case.
Demographically, it appears that males, especially those under forty, are at greatest risk for developing NMS, although it is unclear if the increased incidence is a result of greater neuroleptic use in men under forty. It has also been suggested that postpartum women may be at a greater risk for NMS.
An important risk factor for this condition is Lewy body dementia. These patients are extremely sensitive to neuroleptics. As a result, neuroleptics should be used cautiously in all cases of dementia.
The mechanism is commonly thought to depend on decreased levels of dopamine activity due to:
Dopamine receptor blockade.
Genetically reduced function of dopamine receptor D2.
It has been proposed that blockade of D2-like (D2, D3 and D4) receptors induce massive glutamate release, generating catatonia, neurotoxicity and myotoxicity. Additionally, the blockade of diverse serotonin receptors by atypical antipsychotics and activation of 5HT1 receptors by certain of them reduces GABA release and indirectly induces glutamate release, worsening this syndrome.
The muscular symptoms are most likely caused by blockade of the dopamine receptor D2, leading to abnormal function of the basal ganglia similar to that seen in Parkinson’s disease.
However, the failure of D2 dopamine receptor antagonism, or dopamine receptor dysfunction, do not fully explain the presenting symptoms and signs of NMS, as well as the occurrence of NMS with atypical antipsychotic drugs with lower D2 dopamine activity. This has led to the hypothesis of sympathoadrenal hyperactivity (results from removing tonic inhibition from the sympathetic nervous system) as a mechanism for NMS. Release of calcium is increased from the sarcoplasmic reticulum with antipsychotic usage. This can result in increased muscle contractility, which can play a role in the breakdown of muscle, muscle rigidity, and hyperthermia. Some antipsychotic drugs, such as typical neuroleptics, are known to block dopamine receptors; other studies have shown that when drugs supplying dopamine are withdrawn, symptoms similar to NMS present themselves.
There is also thought to be considerable overlap between malignant catatonia and NMS in their pathophysiology, the former being idiopathic and the latter being the drug-induced form of the same syndrome.
The raised white blood cell count and creatine phosphokinase (CPK) plasma concentration seen in those with NMS is due to increased muscular activity and rhabdomyolysis (destruction of muscle tissue). The patient may suffer hypertensive crisis and metabolic acidosis. A non-generalized slowing on an EEG is reported in around 50% of cases.
The fever seen with NMS is believed to be caused by hypothalamic dopamine receptor blockade. The peripheral problems (the high white blood cell and CPK count) are caused by the antipsychotic drugs. They cause an increased calcium release from the sarcoplasmic reticulum of muscle cells which can result in rigidity and eventual cell breakdown. No major studies have reported an explanation for the abnormal EEG, but it is likely also attributable to dopamine blockage leading to changes in neuronal pathways.
Differentiating NMS from other neurological disorders can be very difficult. It requires expert judgement to separate symptoms of NMS from other diseases. Some of the most commonly mistaken diseases are encephalitis, toxic encephalopathy, status epilepticus, heat stroke, catatonia and malignant hyperthermia. Due to the comparative rarity of NMS, it is often overlooked and immediate treatment for the syndrome is delayed. Drugs such as cocaine and amphetamine may also produce similar symptoms.
The differential diagnosis is similar to that of hyperthermia, and includes serotonin syndrome. Features which distinguish NMS from serotonin syndrome include bradykinesia, muscle rigidity, and a high white blood cell count.
NMS is a medical emergency and can lead to death if untreated. The first step is to stop the antipsychotic medication and treat the hyperthermia aggressively, such as with cooling blankets or ice packs to the axillae and groin. Supportive care in an intensive care unit capable of circulatory and ventilatory support is crucial. The best pharmacological treatment is still unclear. Dantrolene has been used when needed to reduce muscle rigidity, and more recently dopamine pathway medications such as bromocriptine have shown benefit. Amantadine is another treatment option due to its dopaminergic and anticholinergic effects. Apomorphine may be used however its use is supported by little evidence. Benzodiazepines may be used to control agitation. Highly elevated blood myoglobin levels can result in kidney damage, therefore aggressive intravenous hydration with diuresis may be required. When recognised early NMS can be successfully managed; however, up to 10% of cases can be fatal.
Should the affected person subsequently require an antipsychotic, trialling a low dose of a low-potency atypical antipsychotic is recommended.
The prognosis is best when identified early and treated aggressively. In these cases NMS is not usually fatal. In earlier studies the mortality rates from NMS ranged from 20%-38%, but by 2009 mortality rates were reported to have fallen below 10% over the previous two decades due to early recognition and improved management. Re-introduction to the drug that originally caused NMS to develop may also trigger a recurrence, although in most cases it does not.
Memory impairment is a consistent feature of recovery from NMS, and is usually temporary though in some cases may become persistent.
Pooled data suggest the incidence of NMS is between 0.2%-3.23%. However, greater physician awareness coupled with increased use of atypical anti-psychotics have likely reduced the prevalence of NMS. Additionally, young males are particularly susceptible and the male-female ratio has been reported to be as high as 2:1.
While the pathophysiology of NMS remains unclear, the two most prevalent theories are:
Reduced dopamine activity due to receptor blockade.
Sympathoadrenal hyperactivity and autonomic dysfunction.
In the past, research and clinical studies seemed to corroborate the D2 receptor blockade theory in which antipsychotic drugs were thought to significantly reduce dopamine activity by blocking the D2 receptors associated with this neurotransmitter. However, recent studies indicate a genetic component to the condition. In support of the sympathoadrenal hyperactivity model proposed, it has been hypothesized that a defect in calcium regulatory proteins within the sympathetic neurons may bring about the onset of NMS. This model of NMS strengthens its suspected association with malignant hyperthermia in which NMS may be regarded as a neurogenic form of this condition which itself is linked to defective calcium-related proteins.
The introduction of atypical antipsychotic drugs, with lower affinity to the D2 dopamine receptors, was thought to have reduced the incidence of NMS. However, recent studies suggest that the decrease in mortality may be the result of increased physician awareness and earlier initiation of treatment rather than the action of the drugs themselves. NMS induced by atypical drugs also resembles “classical” NMS (induced by “typical” antipsychotic drugs), further casting doubt on the overall superiority of these drugs.
New York State Department of Health Code, Section 405, also known as the Libby Zion Law, is a regulation that limits the amount of resident physicians’ work in New York State hospitals to roughly 80 hours per week. The law was named after Libby Zion, who died in 1984 at the age of 18 under the care of what her father believed to be overworked resident physicians and intern physicians. In July 2003, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education adopted similar regulations for all accredited medical training institutions in the United States.
Although regulatory and civil proceedings found conflicting evidence about Zion’s death, today her death is widely believed to have been caused by serotonin syndrome from the drug interaction between the phenelzine she was taking prior to her hospital visit, and the pethidine administered by a resident physician. The lawsuits and regulatory investigations following her death, and their implications for working conditions and supervision of interns and residents, were highly publicised in both lay media and medical journals.
Death of Libby Zion
Libby Zion (November 1965 to 05 March 1984) was a freshman at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont. She took a prescribed antidepressant, phenelzine, daily. A hospital autopsy revealed traces of cocaine, but other later tests showed no traces. She was the daughter of Sidney Zion, a lawyer who had been a writer for The New York Times. She had two brothers, Adam and Jed. Her obituary in The New York Times, written the day after her death, stated that she had been ill with a “flu-like ailment” for the past several days. The article stated that after being admitted to New York Hospital, she died of cardiac arrest, the cause of which was not known.
Libby Zion had been admitted to the hospital through the emergency room by the resident physician assigned to the ER on the night of 04 March. Raymond Sherman, the Zion family physician, agreed with their plan to hydrate and observe her. Zion was assigned to two residents, Luise Weinstein and Gregg Stone, who both evaluated her. Weinstein, a first-year resident physician (also referred to as intern or PGY-1), and Stone, a PGY-2 resident, were unable to determine the cause of Zion’s illness, though Stone tentatively suggested that her condition might be a simple overreaction to a normal illness. After consulting with Dr. Sherman, the two prescribed pethidine (meperidine) to control the “strange jerking motions” that Zion had been exhibiting when she was admitted.
Weinstein and Stone were both responsible for covering dozens of other patients. After evaluating Zion, they left. Luise Weinstein went to cover other patients, and Stone went to sleep in an on-call room in an adjacent building. Zion, however, did not improve, and continued to become more agitated. After being contacted by nurses by phone, Weinstein ordered medical restraints be placed on Zion. She also prescribed haloperidol by phone to control the agitation.
Zion finally managed to fall asleep, but by 6:30, her temperature was 107 °F (42 °C). Weinstein was once again called, and measures were quickly taken to try to reduce her temperature. However, before this could be done, Zion had a cardiac arrest and could not be resuscitated. Weinstein informed Zion’s parents by telephone.
Several years had gone by before a general agreement was reached regarding the cause of Zion’s death. Zion had been taking a prescribed antidepressant, phenelzine, before she was admitted to the hospital. The combination of that and the pethidine given to her by Stone and Weinstein contributed to the development of serotonin syndrome, a condition which led to increased agitation. This led Zion to pull on her intravenous tubes, causing Weinstein to order physical restraints, which Zion also fought against. By the time she finally fell asleep, her fever had already reached dangerous levels, and she died soon after of cardiac arrest.
Publicity and Trials
Grieving the loss of their child, Zion’s parents became convinced their daughter’s death was due to inadequate staffing at the teaching hospital. Sidney Zion questioned the staff’s competence for two reasons. The first was the administration of pethidine, which can cause fatal interactions with phenelzine, the antidepressant that Zion was taking. Said interaction was known to few clinicians at the time, though because of this case it is now widely known. The second issue was the use of restraints and emergency psychiatric medication. Sidney’s aggrieved words were: “They gave her a drug that was destined to kill her, then ignored her except to tie her down like a dog.” To the distress of the doctors, Sidney referred to his daughter’s death as a “murder”. Sidney also questioned the long hours that residents worked at the time. In a New York Times op-ed piece, he wrote: “You don’t need kindergarten to know that a resident working a 36-hour shift is in no condition to make any kind of judgment call—forget about life-and-death.” The case eventually became a protracted high-profile legal battle, with multiple abrupt reversals; case reports about it appeared in major medical journals.
In May 1986, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau agreed to let a grand jury consider murder charges, an unusual decision for a medical malpractice case. Although the jury declined to indict for murder, in 1987 the intern and resident were charged with 38 counts of gross negligence and/or gross incompetence. The grand jury considered that a series of mistakes contributed to Zion’s death, including the improper prescription of drugs and the failure to perform adequate diagnostic tests. Under New York law, the investigative body for these charges was the Hearing Committee of the State Board for Professional Medical Conduct. Between April 1987 and January 1989, the committee conducted 30 hearings at which 33 witnesses testified, including expert witnesses in toxicology, emergency medicine, and chairmen of internal medicine departments at six prominent medical schools, several of whom stated under oath that they had never heard of the interaction between meperidine and phenelzine prior to this case. At the end of these proceedings, the committee unanimously decided that none of the 38 charges against the two residents were supported by evidence. Its findings were accepted by the full board, and by the state’s Health Commissioner, David Axelrod.
Under New York law, however, the final decision in this matter rested with another body, the Board of Regents, which was under no obligation to consider either the Commissioner’s or the Hearing Committee’s recommendations. The Board of Regents, which at the time had only one physician among its 16 members, voted to “censure and reprimand” the resident physicians for acts of gross negligence. This decision did not affect their right to practice. The verdict against the two residents was considered very surprising in medical circles. In no other case had the Board of Regents overruled the Commissioner’s recommendation. The hospital also admitted it had provided inadequate care and paid a $13,000 fine to the state. In 1991, however, the state’s appeals court completely cleared the records of the two doctors of findings that they had provided inadequate care to Zion.
In parallel with the state investigation, Sidney Zion also filed a separate civil case against the doctors and the hospital. The civil trial came to a close in 1995 when a Manhattan jury found that the two residents and Libby Zion’s primary care doctor contributed to her death by prescribing the wrong drug, and ordered them to pay a total of $375,000 to Zion’s family for her pain and suffering. The jury also found that Raymond Sherman, the primary care physician, had lied on the witness stand in denying he knew that Libby Zion was to be given pethidine. Although the jury found the three doctors negligent, none of them were found guilty of “wanton” negligence, i.e. demonstrating utter disregard for the patient, as opposed to a simple mistake. Payouts for wanton negligence would not have been covered by the doctors’ malpractice insurance.
The emergency room physician, Maurice Leonard, as well as the hospital (as legal persona) were found not responsible for Zion’s death in the civil trial. The jury decided that the hospital was negligent for leaving Weinstein alone in charge of 40 patients that night, but they also concluded that this negligence did not directly contribute to Zion’s death. The trial was shown on Court TV.
Law and Regulations
After the grand jury’s indictment of the two residents, Axelrod decided to address the systemic problems in residency by establishing a blue-ribbon panel of experts headed by Bertrand M. Bell, a primary care physician at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Bell was well known for his critical stance regarding the lack of supervision of physicians-in-training. Formally known as the Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Emergency Services, and more commonly known as the Bell Commission, the committee evaluated the training and supervision of doctors in the state, and developed a series of recommendations that addressed several patient-care issues, including restraint usage, medication systems, and resident work hours.
“In 1989, New York state adopted the Bell Commission’s recommendations that residents could not work more than 80 hours a week or more than 24 consecutive hours” and that attending physicians “needed to be physically present in the hospital at all times. Hospitals instituted so-called night floats, doctors who worked overnight to spell their colleagues, allowing them to adhere to the new rules.” Periodic follow-up audits have prompted the New York State Department of Health to crack down on violating hospitals. Similar limits have since been adopted in numerous other states. In July 2003 the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) adopted similar regulations for all accredited medical training institutions in the United States.
The degree of symptoms can range from mild to severe, including a potentiality of death. Symptoms in mild cases include high blood pressure and a fast heart rate; usually without a fever. Symptoms in moderate cases include high body temperature, agitation, increased reflexes, tremor, sweating, dilated pupils, and diarrhoea. In severe cases body temperature can increase to greater than 41.1 °C (106.0 °F). Complications may include seizures and extensive muscle breakdown.
Serotonin syndrome is typically caused by the use of two or more serotonergic medications or drugs. This may include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI), monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), amphetamines, pethidine (meperidine), tramadol, dextromethorphan, buspirone, L-tryptophan, 5-HTP, St. John’s wort, triptans, ecstasy (MDMA), metoclopramide, or cocaine. It occurs in about 15% of SSRI overdoses. It is a predictable consequence of excess serotonin on the central nervous system (CNS). Onset of symptoms is typically within a day of the extra serotonin.
Diagnosis is based on a person’s symptoms and history of medication use. Other conditions that can produce similar symptoms such as neuroleptic malignant syndrome, malignant hyperthermia, anticholinergic toxicity, heat stroke, and meningitis should be ruled out. No laboratory tests can confirm the diagnosis.
Initial treatment consists of discontinuing medications which may be contributing. In those who are agitated, benzodiazepines may be used. If this is not sufficient, a serotonin antagonist such as cyproheptadine may be used. In those with a high body temperature active cooling measures may be needed. The number of cases of serotonin syndrome that occur each year is unclear. With appropriate treatment the risk of death is less than one percent. The high-profile case of Libby Zion, who is generally accepted to have died from serotonin syndrome, resulted in changes to graduate medical education in New York State.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptom onset is usually rapid, often occurring within minutes of elevated serotonin levels. Serotonin syndrome encompasses a wide range of clinical findings. Mild symptoms may consist of increased heart rate, shivering, sweating, dilated pupils, myoclonus (intermittent jerking or twitching), as well as overresponsive reflexes. However, many of these symptoms may be side effects of the drug or drug interaction causing excessive levels of serotonin; not an effect of elevated serotonin itself. Tremor is a common side effect of MDMA’s action on dopamine, whereas hyperreflexia is symptomatic of exposure to serotonin agonists. Moderate intoxication includes additional abnormalities such as hyperactive bowel sounds, high blood pressure and hyperthermia; a temperature as high as 40 °C (104 °F). The overactive reflexes and clonus in moderate cases may be greater in the lower limbs than in the upper limbs. Mental changes include hypervigilance or insomnia and agitation. Severe symptoms include severe increases in heart rate and blood pressure that may lead to shock. Temperature may rise to above 41.1 °C (106.0 °F) in life-threatening cases. Other abnormalities include metabolic acidosis, rhabdomyolysis, seizures, kidney failure, and disseminated intravascular coagulation; these effects usually arising as a consequence of hyperthermia.
The symptoms are often described as a clinical triad of abnormalities:
Many cases of serotonin toxicity occur in people who have ingested drug combinations that synergistically increase synaptic serotonin. It may also occur due to an overdose of a single serotonergic agent. The combination of MAOIs with precursors such as L-tryptophan or 5-HTP pose a particularly acute risk of life-threatening serotonin syndrome. The case of combination of MAOIs with tryptamine agonists (commonly known as ayahuasca) can present similar dangers as their combination with precursors, but this phenomenon has been described in general terms as the “cheese effect”. Many MAOIs irreversibly inhibit monoamine oxidase. It can take at least four weeks for this enzyme to be replaced by the body in the instance of irreversible inhibitors. With respect to tricyclic antidepressants only clomipramine and imipramine have a risk of causing SS.
Many medications may have been incorrectly thought to cause serotonin syndrome. For example, some case reports have implicated atypical antipsychotics in serotonin syndrome, but it appears based on their pharmacology that they are unlikely to cause the syndrome. It has also been suggested that mirtazapine has no significant serotonergic effects, and is therefore not a dual action drug. Bupropion has also been suggested to cause serotonin syndrome, although as there is no evidence that it has any significant serotonergic activity, it is thought unlikely to produce the syndrome. In 2006 the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert suggesting that the combined use of SSRIs or SNRIs and triptan medications or sibutramine could potentially lead to severe cases of serotonin syndrome. This has been disputed by other researchers as none of the cases reported by the FDA met the Hunter criteria for serotonin syndrome. The condition has however occurred in surprising clinical situations, and because of phenotypic variations among individuals, it has been associated with unexpected drugs, including mirtazapine.
The relative risk and severity of serotonergic side effects and serotonin toxicity, with individual drugs and combinations, is complex. Serotonin syndrome has been reported in patients of all ages, including the elderly, children, and even newborn infants due to in utero exposure. The serotonergic toxicity of SSRIs increases with dose, but even in over-dose it is insufficient to cause fatalities from serotonin syndrome in healthy adults. Elevations of central nervous system serotonin will typically only reach potentially fatal levels when drugs with different mechanisms of action are mixed together. Various drugs, other than SSRIs, also have clinically significant potency as serotonin reuptake inhibitors, (e.g. tramadol, amphetamine, and MDMA) and are associated with severe cases of the syndrome.
Although the most significant health risk associated with opioid overdoses is respiratory depression, it is still possible for an individual to develop serotonin syndrome from certain opioids without the loss of consciousness. However, most cases of opioid-related serotonin syndrome involve the concurrent use of a serotergenic drug such as antidepressants. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon for individuals taking opioids to also be taking antidepressants due to the comorbidity of pain and depression.
Cases where opioids alone are the cause of serotonin syndrome are typically seen with tramadol, because of its dual mechanism as a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor. Serotonin syndrome caused by tramadol can be particularly problematic if an individual taking the drug is unaware of the risks associated with it and attempts to self-medicate symptoms such as headache, agitation, and tremors with more opioids, further exacerbating the condition.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in multiple complex biological processes including aggression, pain, sleep, appetite, anxiety, depression, migraine, and vomiting. In humans the effects of excess serotonin were first noted in 1960 in patients receiving a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) and tryptophan. The syndrome is caused by increased serotonin in the central nervous system. It was originally suspected that agonism of 5-HT1A receptors in central grey nuclei and the medulla was responsible for the development of the syndrome. Further study has determined that overstimulation of primarily the 5-HT2A receptors appears to contribute substantially to the condition. The 5-HT1A receptor may still contribute through a pharmacodynamic interaction in which increased synaptic concentrations of a serotonin agonist saturate all receptor subtypes. Additionally, noradrenergic CNS hyperactivity may play a role as CNS norepinephrine concentrations are increased in serotonin syndrome and levels appear to correlate with the clinical outcome. Other neurotransmitters may also play a role; NMDA receptor antagonists and GABA have been suggested as affecting the development of the syndrome. Serotonin toxicity is more pronounced following supra-therapeutic doses and overdoses, and they merge in a continuum with the toxic effects of overdose.
A postulated “spectrum concept” of serotonin toxicity emphasises the role that progressively increasing serotonin levels play in mediating the clinical picture as side effects merge into toxicity. The dose-effect relationship is the effects of progressive elevation of serotonin, either by raising the dose of one drug, or combining it with another serotonergic drug which may produce large elevations in serotonin levels. Some experts prefer the terms serotonin toxicity or serotonin toxidrome, to more accurately reflect that it is a form of poisoning.
There is no specific test for serotonin syndrome. Diagnosis is by symptom observation and investigation of the person’s history. Several criteria have been proposed. The first evaluated criteria were introduced in 1991 by Harvey Sternbach. Researchers later developed the Hunter Toxicity Criteria Decision Rules, which have better sensitivity and specificity, 84% and 97%, respectively, when compared with the gold standard of diagnosis by a medical toxicologist. As of 2007, Sternbach’s criteria were still the most commonly used.
The most important symptoms for diagnosing serotonin syndrome are tremor, extreme aggressiveness, akathisia, or clonus (spontaneous, inducible and ocular). Physical examination of the patient should include assessment of deep-tendon reflexes and muscle rigidity, the dryness of the mucosa of the mouth, the size and reactivity of the pupils, the intensity of bowel sounds, skin colour, and the presence or absence of sweating. The patient’s history also plays an important role in diagnosis, investigations should include inquiries about the use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, illicit substances, and dietary supplements, as all these agents have been implicated in the development of serotonin syndrome. To fulfil the Hunter Criteria, a patient must have taken a serotonergic agent and meet one of the following conditions:
Spontaneous clonus, or
Inducible clonus plus agitation or diaphoresis, or
Ocular clonus plus agitation or diaphoresis, or
Tremor plus hyperreflexia, or
Hypertonism plus temperature > 38 °C (100 °F) plus ocular clonus or inducible clonus.
Serotonin toxicity has a characteristic picture which is generally hard to confuse with other medical conditions, but in some situations it may go unrecognized because it may be mistaken for a viral illness, anxiety disorders, neurological disorder, anticholinergic poisoning, sympathomimetic toxicity, or worsening psychiatric condition. The condition most often confused with serotonin syndrome is neuroleptic malignant syndrome (NMS). The clinical features of neuroleptic malignant syndrome and serotonin syndrome share some features which can make differentiating them difficult. In both conditions, autonomic dysfunction and altered mental status develop. However, they are actually very different conditions with different underlying dysfunction (serotonin excess vs dopamine blockade). Both the time course and the clinical features of NMS differ significantly from those of serotonin toxicity. Serotonin toxicity has a rapid onset after the administration of a serotonergic drug and responds to serotonin blockade such as drugs like chlorpromazine and cyproheptadine. Dopamine receptor blockade (NMS) has a slow onset, typically evolves over several days after administration of a neuroleptic drug, and responds to dopamine agonists such as bromocriptine.
Differential diagnosis may become difficult in patients recently exposed to both serotonergic and neuroleptic drugs. Bradykinesia and extrapyramidal “lead pipe” rigidity are classically present in NMS, whereas serotonin syndrome causes hyperkinesia and clonus; these distinct symptoms can aid in differentiation.
Management is based primarily on stopping the usage of the precipitating drugs, the administration of serotonin antagonists such as cyproheptadine, and supportive care including the control of agitation, the control of autonomic instability, and the control of hyperthermia. Additionally, those who ingest large doses of serotonergic agents may benefit from gastrointestinal decontamination with activated charcoal if it can be administered within an hour of overdose. The intensity of therapy depends on the severity of symptoms. If the symptoms are mild, treatment may only consist of discontinuation of the offending medication or medications, offering supportive measures, giving benzodiazepines for myoclonus, and waiting for the symptoms to resolve. Moderate cases should have all thermal and cardiorespiratory abnormalities corrected and can benefit from serotonin antagonists. The serotonin antagonist cyproheptadine is the recommended initial therapy, although there have been no controlled trials demonstrating its efficacy for serotonin syndrome. Despite the absence of controlled trials, there are a number of case reports detailing apparent improvement after people have been administered cyproheptadine. Animal experiments also suggest a benefit from serotonin antagonists. Cyproheptadine is only available as tablets and therefore can only be administered orally or via a nasogastric tube; it is unlikely to be effective in people administered activated charcoal and has limited use in severe cases. Cyproheptadine can be stopped when the person is no longer experiencing symptoms and the half life of serotonergic medications already passed.
Additional pharmacological treatment for severe case includes administering atypical antipsychotic drugs with serotonin antagonist activity such as olanzapine. Critically ill people should receive the above therapies as well as sedation or neuromuscular paralysis. People who have autonomic instability such as low blood pressure require treatment with direct-acting sympathomimetics such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, or phenylephrine. Conversely, hypertension or tachycardia can be treated with short-acting antihypertensive drugs such as nitroprusside or esmolol; longer acting drugs such as propranolol should be avoided as they may lead to hypotension and shock. The cause of serotonin toxicity or accumulation is an important factor in determining the course of treatment. Serotonin is catabolized by monoamine oxidase A in the presence of oxygen, so if care is taken to prevent an unsafe spike in body temperature or metabolic acidosis, oxygenation will assist in dispatching the excess serotonin. The same principle applies to alcohol intoxication. In cases of serotonin syndrome caused by monoamine oxidase inhibitors oxygenation will not help to dispatch serotonin. In such instances, hydration is the main concern until the enzyme is regenerated.
Specific treatment for some symptoms may be required. One of the most important treatments is the control of agitation due to the extreme possibility of injury to the person themselves or caregivers, benzodiazepines should be administered at first sign of this. Physical restraints are not recommended for agitation or delirium as they may contribute to mortality by enforcing isometric muscle contractions that are associated with severe lactic acidosis and hyperthermia. If physical restraints are necessary for severe agitation they must be rapidly replaced with pharmacological sedation. The agitation can cause a large amount of muscle breakdown. This breakdown can cause severe damage to the kidneys through a condition called rhabdomyolysis.
Treatment for hyperthermia includes reducing muscle overactivity via sedation with a benzodiazepine. More severe cases may require muscular paralysis with vecuronium, intubation, and artificial ventilation. Suxamethonium is not recommended for muscular paralysis as it may increase the risk of cardiac dysrhythmia from hyperkalaemia associated with rhabdomyolysis. Antipyretic agents are not recommended as the increase in body temperature is due to muscular activity, not a hypothalamic temperature set point abnormality.
Upon the discontinuation of serotonergic drugs, most cases of serotonin syndrome resolve within 24 hours, although in some cases delirium may persist for a number of days. Symptoms typically persist for a longer time frame in patients taking drugs which have a long elimination half-life, active metabolites, or a protracted duration of action.
Cases have reported persisting chronic symptoms, and antidepressant discontinuation may contribute to ongoing features. Following appropriate medical management, serotonin syndrome is generally associated with a favourable prognosis.
Epidemiological studies of serotonin syndrome are difficult as many physicians are unaware of the diagnosis or they may miss the syndrome due to its variable manifestations. In 1998 a survey conducted in England found that 85% of the general practitioners that had prescribed the antidepressant nefazodone were unaware of serotonin syndrome. The incidence may be increasing as a larger number of pro-serotonergic drugs (drugs which increase serotonin levels) are now being used in clinical practice. One post-marketing surveillance study identified an incidence of 0.4 cases per 1000 patient-months for patients who were taking nefazodone. Additionally, around 14 to 16 percent of persons who overdose on SSRIs are thought to develop serotonin syndrome.
The most widely recognised example of serotonin syndrome was the death of Libby Zion in 1984. Zion was a freshman at Bennington College at her death on 05 March 1984, at age 18. She died within 8 hours of her emergency admission to the New York Hospital Cornell Medical Centre. She had an ongoing history of depression, and came to the Manhattan hospital on the evening of 04 March 1984, with a fever, agitation and “strange jerking motions” of her body. She also seemed disoriented at times. The emergency room physicians were unable to diagnose her condition definitively but admitted her for hydration and observation. Her death was caused by a combination of pethidine and phenelzine. A medical intern prescribed the pethidine. The case influenced graduate medical education and residency work hours. Limits were set on working hours for medical postgraduates, commonly referred to as interns or residents, in hospital training programmes, and they also now require closer senior physician supervision.
Common side effects include loss of appetite, constipation, dry mouth, dizziness, sweating, and sexual problems. Severe side effects include an increased risk of suicide, mania, and serotonin syndrome. Antidepressant withdrawal syndrome may occur if stopped. There are concerns that use during the later part of pregnancy can harm the baby. How it works is not entirely clear, but it seems to be related to the potentiation of the activity of some neurotransmitters in the brain.
Venlafaxine was approved for medical use in the United States in 1993. It is available as a generic medication. In 2018, it was the 50th most commonly prescribed medication in the United States with more than 16 million prescriptions.
Venlafaxine is used primarily for the treatment of depression, general anxiety disorder, social phobia, panic disorder, and vasomotor symptoms.
Venlafaxine has been used off label for the treatment of diabetic neuropathy and migraine prevention (in some people, however, venlafaxine can exacerbate or cause migraines). It may work on pain via effects on the opioid receptor. It has also been found to reduce the severity of ‘hot flashes’ in menopausal women and men on hormonal therapy for the treatment of prostate cancer.
Due to its action on both the serotoninergic and adrenergic systems, venlafaxine is also used as a treatment to reduce episodes of cataplexy, a form of muscle weakness, in patients with the sleep disorder narcolepsy. Some open-label and three double-blind studies have suggested the efficacy of venlafaxine in the treatment of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Clinical trials have found possible efficacy in those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Case reports, open trials and blinded comparisons with established medications have suggested the efficacy of venlafaxine in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
A comparative meta-analysis of 21 major antidepressants found that venlafaxine, agomelatine, amitriptyline, escitalopram, mirtazapine, paroxetine, and vortioxetine were more effective than other antidepressants, although the quality of many comparisons was assessed as low or very low.
Venlafaxine was similar in efficacy to the atypical antidepressant bupropion; however, the remission rate was lower for venlafaxine. In a double-blind study, patients who did not respond to an SSRI were switched to either venlafaxine or another SSRI (citalopram); similar improvement was observed in both groups.
Studies of venlafaxine in children have not established its efficacy.
Studies have shown that the extended release is superior to the immediate release form of venlafaxine.
A meta-analysis shown that efficacity of venlafaxine is not correlated with baseline severity of depression.
Venlafaxine has been shown to have an optimal efficacity and tolerability towards the lower end of their licensed dose range.
Venlafaxine is not recommended in patients hypersensitive to it, nor should it be taken by anyone who is allergic to the inactive ingredients, which include gelatin, cellulose, ethylcellulose, iron oxide, titanium dioxide and hypromellose. It should not be used in conjunction with a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), as it can cause potentially fatal serotonin syndrome.
Venlafaxine can increase eye pressure, so those with glaucoma may require more frequent eye checks.
A 2017 meta-analysis estimated venlafaxine discontinuation rate to 9.4%.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all antidepressants, including venlafaxine, to carry a black box warning with a generic warning about a possible suicide risk.
A 2014 meta analysis of 21 clinical trials of venlafaxine for the treatment of depression in adults found that compared to placebo, venlafaxine reduced the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviour.
A study conducted in Finland followed more than 15,000 patients for 3.4 years. Venlafaxine increased suicide risk by 60% (statistically significant), as compared to no treatment. At the same time, fluoxetine (Prozac) halved the suicide risk.
In another study, the data on more than 200,000 cases were obtained from the UK general practice research database. At baseline, patients prescribed venlafaxine had a greater number of risk factors for suicide (such as prior suicide attempts) than patients treated with other anti-depressants. The patients taking venlafaxine had significantly higher risk of completed suicide than the ones on fluoxetine or citalopram (Celexa). After adjusting for known risk factors, venlafaxine was associated with an increased risk of suicide relative to fluoxetine and dothiepin that was not statistically significant. A statistically significant greater risk for attempted suicide remained after adjustment, but the authors concluded that it could be due to residual confounding.
An analysis of clinical trials by the FDA statisticians showed the incidence of suicidal behaviour among the adults on venlafaxine to be not significantly different from fluoxetine or placebo.
Venlafaxine is contraindicated in children, adolescents and young adults. According to the FDA analysis of clinical trials venlafaxine caused a statistically significant 5-fold increase in suicidal ideation and behaviour in persons younger than 25. In another analysis, venlafaxine was no better than placebo among children (7-11 years old), but improved depression in adolescents (12-17 years old). However, in both groups, hostility and suicidal behaviour increased in comparison to those receiving a placebo. In a study involving antidepressants that had failed to produce results in depressed teenagers, teens whose SSRI treatment had failed who were randomly switched to either another SSRI or to venlafaxine showed an increased rate of suicide on venlafaxine. Among teenagers who were suicidal at the beginning of the study, the rate of suicidal attempts and self-harm was significantly higher, by about 60%, after the switch to venlafaxine than after the switch to an SSRI.
People stopping venlafaxine commonly experience discontinuation symptoms such as dysphoria, headaches, nausea, irritability, emotional lability, sensation of electric shocks, and sleep disturbance. Venlafaxine has a higher rate of moderate to severe discontinuation symptoms relative to other antidepressants (similar to the SSRI paroxetine).
The higher risk and increased severity of discontinuation syndrome symptoms relative to other antidepressants may be related to the short half-life of venlafaxine and its active metabolite. After discontinuing venlafaxine, the levels of both serotonin and norepinephrine decrease, leading to the hypothesis that the discontinuation symptoms could result from an overly rapid reduction of neurotransmitter levels.
The development of a potentially life-threatening serotonin syndrome (also more recently classified as “serotonin toxicity”) may occur with venlafaxine treatment, particularly with concomitant use of serotonergic drugs, including but not limited to SSRIs and SNRIs, many hallucinogens such as tryptamines and phenethylamines (e.g. LSD/LSA, DMT, MDMA, mescaline), dextromethorphan (DXM), tramadol, tapentadol, pethidine (meperidine) and triptans and with drugs that impair metabolism of serotonin (including MAOIs). Serotonin syndrome symptoms may include mental status changes (e.g. agitation, hallucinations, coma), autonomic instability (e.g. tachycardia, labile blood pressure, hyperthermia), neuromuscular aberrations (e.g. hyperreflexia, incoordination) or gastrointestinal symptoms (e.g. nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea). Venlafaxine-induced serotonin syndrome has also been reported when venlafaxine has been taken in isolation in overdose. An abortive serotonin syndrome state, in which some but not all of the symptoms of the full serotonin syndrome are present, has been reported with venlafaxine at mid-range dosages (150 mg per day). A case of a patient with serotonin syndrome induced by low-dose venlafaxine (37.5 mg per day) has also been reported.
There are few well-controlled studies of venlafaxine in pregnant women. A study released in May 2010 by the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggests use of venlafaxine doubles the risk of miscarriage. Consequently, venlafaxine should only be used during pregnancy if clearly needed. A large case-control study done as part of the National Birth Defects Prevention Study and published in 2012 found a significant association of venlafaxine use during pregnancy and several birth defects including anencephaly, cleft palate, septal heart defects and coarctation of the aorta. Prospective studies have not shown any statistically significant congenital malformations. There have, however, been some reports of self-limiting effects on newborn infants. As with other serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs), these effects are generally short-lived, lasting only 3 to 5 days, and rarely resulting in severe complications.
Venlafaxine should be taken with caution when using St John’s wort. Venlafaxine may lower the seizure threshold, and co-administration with other drugs that lower the seizure threshold such as bupropion and tramadol should be done with caution and at low doses.
Venlafaxine is neither recommended nor approved for the treatment of major depressive episodes in bipolar disorder, as it can induce mania or mixed episodes. Venlafaxine appears to be more likely than the SSRIs and bupropion to induce mania and mixed episodes in bipolar patients.
A rare but serious side effect of venlafaxine is liver injury. It reaches man and female patients with a median age of 44 years. Cessation of venlafaxine is one of the appropriate measure of management. The mechanism of venlafaxine related-liver injury is unclear but may be related to a CYP2D6 polymorphism.
In rare cases, drug-induced akathisia (movement disorder) can occur after use in some people.
Venlafaxine should be used with caution in hypertensive patients. Venlafaxine must be discontinued if significant hypertension persists. It can also have undesirable cardiovascular effects.
Most patients overdosing with venlafaxine develop only mild symptoms. Plasma venlafaxine concentrations in overdose survivors have ranged from 6 to 24 mg/l, while postmortem blood levels in fatalities are often in the 10-90 mg/l range. Published retrospective studies report that venlafaxine overdosage may be associated with an increased risk of fatal outcome compared to that observed with SSRI antidepressant products, but lower than that for tricyclic antidepressants. Healthcare professionals are advised to prescribe Effexor and Effexor XR in the smallest quantity of capsules consistent with good patient management to reduce the risk of overdose. It is usually reserved as a second-line treatment for depression due to a combination of its superior efficacy to the first-line treatments like fluoxetine, paroxetine and citalopram and greater frequency of side effects like nausea, headache, insomnia, drowsiness, dry mouth, constipation, sexual dysfunction, sweating and nervousness.
There is no specific antidote for venlafaxine, and management is generally supportive, providing treatment for the immediate symptoms. Administration of activated charcoal can prevent absorption of the drug. Monitoring of cardiac rhythm and vital signs is indicated. Seizures are managed with benzodiazepines or other anticonvulsants. Forced diuresis, hzemodialysis, exchange transfusion, or hemoperfusion are unlikely to be of benefit in hastening the removal of venlafaxine, due to the drug’s high volume of distribution.
Mechanism of Action
Venlafaxine is usually categorised as a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI), but it has also been referred to as a serotonin-norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor (SNDRI). It works by blocking the transporter “reuptake” proteins for key neurotransmitters affecting mood, thereby leaving more active neurotransmitters in the synapse. The neurotransmitters affected are serotonin and norepinephrine. Additionally, in high doses it weakly inhibits the reuptake of dopamine, since dopamine is inactivated by norepinephrine reuptake in the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex largely lacks dopamine transporters; therefore venlafaxine can increase dopamine neurotransmission in this part of the brain.
Venlafaxine indirectly affects opioid receptors as well as the alpha2-adrenergic receptor, and was shown to increase pain threshold in mice. These benefits with respect to pain were reversed with naloxone, an opioid antagonist, thus supporting an opioid mechanism.
Venlafaxine is well absorbed, with at least 92% of an oral dose being absorbed into systemic circulation. It is extensively metabolized in the liver via the CYP2D6 isoenzyme to desvenlafaxine (O-desmethylvenlafaxine, now marketed as a separate medication named Pristiq), which is just as potent an SNRI as the parent compound, meaning that the differences in metabolism between extensive and poor metabolisers are not clinically important in terms of efficacy. Side effects, however, are reported to be more severe in CYP2D6 poor metabolisers. Steady-state concentrations of venlafaxine and its metabolite are attained in the blood within 3 days. Therapeutic effects are usually achieved within 3 to 4 weeks. No accumulation of venlafaxine has been observed during chronic administration in healthy subjects. The primary route of excretion of venlafaxine and its metabolites is via the kidneys. The half-life of venlafaxine is relatively short, so patients are directed to adhere to a strict medication routine, avoiding missing a dose. Even a single missed dose can result in withdrawal symptoms.
Venlafaxine is a substrate of P-glycoprotein (P-gp), which pumps it out of the brain. The gene encoding P-gp, ABCB1, has the SNP rs2032583, with alleles C and T. The majority of people (about 70% of Europeans and 90% of East Asians) have the TT variant. A 2007 study found that carriers of at least one C allele (variant CC or CT) are 7.72 times more likely than non-carriers to achieve remission after 4 weeks of treatment with amitriptyline, citalopram, paroxetine or venlafaxine (all P-gp substrates). The study included patients with mood disorders other than major depression, such as bipolar II; the ratio is 9.4 if these other disorders are excluded. At the 6-week mark, 75% of C-carriers had remitted, compared to only 38% of non-carriers.
The IUPAC name of venlafaxine is 1-[2-(dimethylamino)-1-(4 methoxyphenyl)ethyl]cyclohexanol, though it is sometimes referred to as (±)-1-[a-[a-(dimethylamino)methyl]-p-methoxybenzyl]cyclohexanol. It consists of two enantiomers present in equal quantities (termed a racemic mixture), both of which have the empirical formula of C17H27NO2. It is usually sold as a mixture of the respective hydrochloride salts, (R/S)-1-[2-(dimethylamino)-1-(4 methoxyphenyl)ethyl]cyclohexanol hydrochloride, C17H28ClNO2, which is a white to off-white crystalline solid. Venlafaxine is structurally and pharmacologically related to the atypical opioid analgesic tramadol, and more distantly to the newly released opioid tapentadol, but not to any of the conventional antidepressant drugs, including tricyclic antidepressants, SSRIs, MAOIs, or RIMAs.
Venlafaxine extended release is chemically the same as normal venlafaxine. The extended release (controlled release) version distributes the release of the drug into the gastrointestinal tract over a longer period than normal venlafaxine. This results in a lower peak plasma concentration. Studies have shown that the extended release formula has a lower incidence of nausea as a side effect, resulting in better compliance.
Society and Culture
Venlafaxine was originally marketed as Effexor in most of the world; generic venlafaxine has been available since around 2008 and extended release venlaxafine has been available since around 2010.
SSRIs increase the extracellular level of the neurotransmitter serotonin by limiting its reabsorption (reuptake) into the presynaptic cell. They have varying degrees of selectivity for the other monoamine transporters, with pure SSRIs having strong affinity for the serotonin transporter and only weak affinity for the norepinephrine and dopamine transporters.
SSRIs are the most widely prescribed antidepressants in many countries. The efficacy of SSRIs in mild or moderate cases of depression has been disputed and may be outweighed by side effects, especially in adolescent populations.
Fluoxetine was introduced in 1987 and was the first major SSRI to be marketed.
The main indication for SSRIs is major depressive disorder (MDD); however, they are frequently prescribed for anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety disorder, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, chronic pain, and, in some cases, for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are also frequently used to treat depersonalisation disorder, although with varying results.
Antidepressants are recommended by the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a first-line treatment of severe depression and for the treatment of mild-to-moderate depression that persists after conservative measures such as cognitive therapy. They recommend against their routine use in those who have chronic health problems and mild depression.
There has been controversy regarding the efficacy of SSRIs in treating depression depending on its severity and duration.
Two meta-analyses published in 2008 (Kirsch) and 2010 (Fournier) found that in mild and moderate depression, the effect of SSRIs is small or none compared to placebo, while in very severe depression the effect of SSRIs is between “relatively small” and “substantial”. The 2008 meta-analysis combined 35 clinical trials submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before licensing of four newer antidepressants (including the SSRIs paroxetine and fluoxetine, the non-SSRI antidepressant nefazodone, and the serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) venlafaxine). The authors attributed the relationship between severity and efficacy to a reduction of the placebo effect in severely depressed patients, rather than an increase in the effect of the medication. Some researchers have questioned the statistical basis of this study suggesting that it underestimates the effect size of antidepressants.
A 2012 meta-analysis of fluoxetine and venlafaxine concluded that statistically and clinically significant treatment effects were observed for each drug relative to placebo irrespective of baseline depression severity; some of the authors however disclosed substantial relationships with pharmaceutical industries.
A 2017 systematic review stated that “SSRIs versus placebo seem to have statistically significant effects on depressive symptoms, but the clinical significance of these effects seems questionable and all trials were at high risk of bias. Furthermore, SSRIs versus placebo significantly increase the risk of both serious and non-serious adverse events. Our results show that the harmful effects of SSRIs versus placebo for major depressive disorder seem to outweigh any potentially small beneficial effects”. Fredrik Hieronymus et al. criticised the review as inaccurate and misleading, but they also disclosed multiple ties to pharmaceutical industries.
In 2018, a systematic review and network meta-analysis comparing the efficacy and acceptability of 21 antidepressant drugs showed escitalopram to be one of the most effective.
In children, there are concerns around the quality of the evidence on the meaningfulness of benefits seen. If a medication is used, fluoxetine appears to be first line.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Some SSRIs are effective for social anxiety disorder, although their effects on symptoms is not always robust and their use is sometimes rejected in favour of psychological therapies. Paroxetine was the first drug to be approved for social anxiety disorder and it is considered effective for this disorder, sertraline and fluvoxamine were later approved for it, too, escitalopram and citalopram are used off label with acceptable efficacy, while fluoxetine is not considered to be effective for this disorder.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD is relatively hard to treat and generally treatment is not highly effective; SSRIs are no exception. They are not very effective for this disorder and only two SSRI are US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved for this condition, paroxetine and sertraline. Paroxetine has slightly higher response and remission rates for PTSD than sertraline, but both are not fully effective for many patients. Fluoxetine is used off label, but with mixed results, venlafaxine, an SNRI, is considered somewhat effective, although used off label, too. Fluvoxamine, escitalopram and citalopram are not well tested in this disorder. Paroxetine remains the most suitable drug for PTSD as of now, but with limited benefits.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder
SSRIs are recommended by NICE for the treatment of GAD that has failed to respond to conservative measures such as education and self-help activities. GAD is a common disorder of which the central feature is excessive worry about a number of different events. Key symptoms include excessive anxiety about multiple events and issues, and difficulty controlling worrisome thoughts that persists for at least 6 months.
Antidepressants provide a modest-to-moderate reduction in anxiety in GAD, and are superior to placebo in treating GAD. The efficacy of different antidepressants is similar.
In Canada, SSRIs are a first-line treatment of adult OCD. In the UK, they are first-line treatment only with moderate to severe functional impairment and as second line treatment for those with mild impairment, though, as of early 2019, this recommendation is being reviewed. In children, SSRIs can be considered a second line therapy in those with moderate-to-severe impairment, with close monitoring for psychiatric adverse effects. SSRIs, especially fluvoxamine, which is the first one to be FDA approved for OCD, are efficacious in its treatment; patients treated with SSRIs are about twice as likely to respond to treatment as those treated with placebo. Efficacy has been demonstrated both in short-term treatment trials of 6 to 24 weeks and in discontinuation trials of 28 to 52 weeks duration.
Paroxetine CR was superior to placebo on the primary outcome measure. In a 10-wk randomised controlled, double-blind trial escitalopram was more effective than placebo. Fluvoxamine has shown positive results. However, evidence for their effectiveness and acceptability is unclear.
Antidepressants are recommended as an alternative or additional first step to self-help programs in the treatment of bulimia nervosa. SSRIs (fluoxetine in particular) are preferred over other anti-depressants due to their acceptability, tolerability, and superior reduction of symptoms in short-term trials. Long-term efficacy remains poorly characterised.
Similar recommendations apply to binge eating disorder. SSRIs provide short-term reductions in binge eating behaviour, but have not been associated with significant weight loss.
Clinical trials have generated mostly negative results for the use of SSRIs in the treatment of anorexia nervosa. Treatment guidelines from the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence recommend against the use of SSRIs in this disorder. Those from the American Psychiatric Association note that SSRIs confer no advantage regarding weight gain, but that they may be used for the treatment of co-existing depressive, anxiety, or OCD.
SSRIs have been used off-label in the treatment of stroke patients, including those with and without symptoms of depression. A 2019 meta-analysis of randomised, controlled clinical trials found a statistically significant effect of SSRIs on dependence, neurological deficit, depression, and anxiety but the studies had a high risk of bias. No reliable evidence points to their routine use to promote recovery following stroke. Thrombosis risk is reduced because SSRIs limit serotonin availability to platelets, so benefits, such as stroke recovery, of reduced clotting go up, with SSRIs.
SSRIs are effective for the treatment of premature ejaculation. Taking SSRIs on a chronic, daily basis is more effective than taking them prior to sexual activity. The increased efficacy of treatment when taking SSRIs on a daily basis is consistent with clinical observations that the therapeutic effects of SSRIs generally take several weeks to emerge. Sexual dysfunction ranging from decreased libido to anorgasmia is usually considered to be a significantly distressing side effect which may lead to noncompliance in patients receiving SSRIs. However, for those suffering from premature ejaculation, this very same side effect becomes the desired effect.
SSRIs such as sertraline have been found to be effective in decreasing anger.
Side effects vary among the individual drugs of this class and may include:
Increased risk of bone fractures.
Suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide) and other risks (see below).
SSRIs can cause various types of sexual dysfunction such as anorgasmia, erectile dysfunction, diminished libido, genital numbness, and sexual anhedonia (pleasureless orgasm). Sexual problems are common with SSRIs. While initial trials showed side effects in 5-15% of users (based on spontaneous reporting by users), later studies (based on asking patients directly) have shown side effect rates from 36% to 98%. Poor sexual function is also one of the most common reasons people stop the medication.
In some cases, symptoms of sexual dysfunction may persist after discontinuation of SSRIs. This combination of symptoms is sometimes referred to as Post-SSRI Sexual Dysfunction (PSSD). On the 11 June 2019 the Pharmacovigilance Risk Assessment Committee of the European Medicines Agency concluded that a possible relationship exists between SSRI use and persistent sexual dysfunction after cessation of use. The committee concluded that a warning should be added to the label of SSRIs and SNRIs regarding this possible risk.
The mechanism by which SSRIs may cause sexual side effects is not well understood as of 2021. The range of possible mechanisms includes:
Nonspecific neurological effects (e.g. sedation) that globally impair behaviour including sexual function;
Specific effects on brain systems mediating sexual function;
Specific effects on peripheral tissues and organs, such as the penis, that mediate sexual function; and
Direct or indirect effects on hormones mediating sexual function.
Management strategies include: for erectile dysfunction the addition of a PDE5 inhibitor such as sildenafil; for decreased libido, possibly adding or switching to bupropion; and for overall sexual dysfunction, switching to nefazodone.
A number of non-SSRI drugs are not associated with sexual side effects (such as bupropion, mirtazapine, tianeptine, agomelatine and moclobemide).
Several studies have suggested that SSRIs may adversely affect semen quality.
While trazodone (an antidepressant with alpha adrenergic receptor blockade) is a notorious cause of priapism, cases of priapism have also been reported with certain SSRIs (e.g. fluoxetine, citalopram).
Researcher David Healy and others have reviewed available data, concluding that SSRIs increase violent acts, in adults and children, both on therapy and during withdrawal. This view is also shared by some patient activist groups.
Acute narrow-angle glaucoma is the most common and important ocular side effect of SSRIs, and often goes misdiagnosed.
SSRIs do not appear to affect the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) in those without a previous diagnosis of CHD. A large cohort study suggested no substantial increase in the risk of cardiac malformations attributable to SSRI usage during the first trimester of pregnancy. A number of large studies of people without known pre-existing heart disease have reported no EKG changes related to SSRI use. The recommended maximum daily dose of citalopram and escitalopram was reduced due to concerns with QT prolongation. In overdose, fluoxetine has been reported to cause sinus tachycardia, myocardial infarction, junctional rhythms and trigeminy. Some authors have suggested electrocardiographic monitoring in patients with severe pre-existing cardiovascular disease who are taking SSRIs.
SSRIs directly increase the risk of abnormal bleeding by lowering platelet serotonin levels, which are essential to platelet-driven haemostasis. SSRIs interact with anticoagulants, like warfarin, and antiplatelet drugs, like aspirin. This includes an increased risk of GI bleeding, and post operative bleeding. The relative risk of intracranial bleeding is increased, but the absolute risk is very low. SSRIs are known to cause platelet dysfunction. This risk is greater in those who are also on anticoagulants, antiplatelet agents and NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), as well as with the co-existence of underlying diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver or liver failure.
Evidence from longitudinal, cross-sectional, and prospective cohort studies suggests an association between SSRI usage at therapeutic doses and a decrease in bone mineral density, as well as increased fracture risk, a relationship that appears to persist even with adjuvant bisphosphonate therapy. However, because the relationship between SSRIs and fractures is based on observational data as opposed to prospective trials, the phenomenon is not definitively causal. There also appears to be an increase in fracture-inducing falls with SSRI use, suggesting the need for increased attention to fall risk in elderly patients using the medication. The loss of bone density does not appear to occur in younger patients taking SSRIs.
SSRI and SNRI antidepressants may cause jaw pain/jaw spasm reversible syndrome (although it is not common). Buspirone appears to be successful in treating bruxism on SSRI/SNRI induced jaw clenching.
Serotonin reuptake inhibitors should not be abruptly discontinued after extended therapy, and whenever possible, should be tapered over several weeks to minimise discontinuation-related symptoms which may include nausea, headache, dizziness, chills, body aches, paraesthesia’s, insomnia, and brain zaps. Paroxetine may produce discontinuation-related symptoms at a greater rate than other SSRIs, though qualitatively similar effects have been reported for all SSRIs. Discontinuation effects appear to be less for fluoxetine, perhaps owing to its long half-life and the natural tapering effect associated with its slow clearance from the body. One strategy for minimizing SSRI discontinuation symptoms is to switch the patient to fluoxetine and then taper and discontinue the fluoxetine.
Serotonin syndrome is typically caused by the use of two or more serotonergic drugs, including SSRIs. Serotonin syndrome is a condition that can range from mild (most common) to deadly. Mild symptoms may consist of increased heart rate, shivering, sweating, dilated pupils, myoclonus (intermittent jerking or twitching), as well as overresponsive reflexes. Concomitant use of an SSRI or selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor for depression with a triptan for migraine does not appear to heighten the risk of the serotonin syndrome. The prognosis in a hospital setting is generally good if correctly diagnosed. Treatment consists of discontinuing any serotonergic drugs as well as supportive care to manage agitation and hyperthermia, usually with benzodiazepines.
Children and Adolescents
Meta analyses of short duration randomized clinical trials have found that SSRI use is related to a higher risk of suicidal behaviour in children and adolescents. For instance, a 2004 FDA analysis of clinical trials on children with major depressive disorder found statistically significant increases of the risks of “possible suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior” by about 80%, and of agitation and hostility by about 130%. According to the FDA, the heightened risk of suicidality is within the first one to two months of treatments. NICE places the excess risk in the “early stages of treatment”. The European Psychiatric Association places the excess risk in the first two weeks of treatment and, based on a combination of epidemiological, prospective cohort, medical claims, and randomized clinical trial data, concludes that a protective effect dominates after this early period. A 2014 Cochrane review found that at six to nine months, suicidal ideation remained higher in children treated with antidepressants compared to those treated with psychological therapy.
A recent comparison of aggression and hostility occurring during treatment with fluoxetine to placebo in children and adolescents found that no significant difference between the fluoxetine group and a placebo group. There is also evidence that higher rates of SSRI prescriptions are associated with lower rates of suicide in children, though since the evidence is correlational, the true nature of the relationship is unclear.
In 2004, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the United Kingdom judged fluoxetine (Prozac) to be the only antidepressant that offered a favourable risk-benefit ratio in children with depression, though it was also associated with a slight increase in the risk of self-harm and suicidal ideation. Only two SSRIs are licensed for use with children in the UK, sertraline (Zoloft) and fluvoxamine (Luvox), and only for the treatment of OCD. Fluoxetine is not licensed for this use.
It is unclear whether SSRIs affect the risk of suicidal behaviour in adults.
A 2005 meta-analysis of drug company data found no evidence that SSRIs increased the risk of suicide; however, important protective or hazardous effects could not be excluded.
A 2005 review observed that suicide attempts are increased in those who use SSRIs as compared to placebo and compared to therapeutic interventions other than tricyclic antidepressants. No difference risk of suicide attempts was detected between SSRIs versus tricyclic antidepressants.
On the other hand, a 2006 review suggests that the widespread use of antidepressants in the new “SSRI-era” appears to have led to a highly significant decline in suicide rates in most countries with traditionally high baseline suicide rates. The decline is particularly striking for women who, compared with men, seek more help for depression. Recent clinical data on large samples in the US too have revealed a protective effect of antidepressant against suicide.
A 2006 meta-analysis of random controlled trials suggests that SSRIs increase suicide ideation compared with placebo. However, the observational studies suggest that SSRIs did not increase suicide risk more than older antidepressants. The researchers stated that if SSRIs increase suicide risk in some patients, the number of additional deaths is very small because ecological studies have generally found that suicide mortality has declined (or at least not increased) as SSRI use has increased.
An additional meta-analysis by the FDA in 2006 found an age-related effect of SSRI’s. Among adults younger than 25 years, results indicated that there was a higher risk for suicidal behaviour. For adults between 25 and 64, the effect appears neutral on suicidal behaviour but possibly protective for suicidal behaviour for adults between the ages of 25 and 64. For adults older than 64, SSRI’s seem to reduce the risk of both suicidal behaviour.
In 2016 a study criticised the effects of the FDA Black Box suicide warning inclusion in the prescription. The authors discussed the suicide rates might increase also as a consequence of the warning.
Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
SSRI use in pregnancy has been associated with a variety of risks with varying degrees of proof of causation. As depression is independently associated with negative pregnancy outcomes, determining the extent to which observed associations between antidepressant use and specific adverse outcomes reflects a causative relationship has been difficult in some cases. In other cases, the attribution of adverse outcomes to antidepressant exposure seems fairly clear.
SSRI use in pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of spontaneous abortion of about 1.7-fold. Use is also associated preterm birth.
A systematic review of the risk of major birth defects in antidepressant-exposed pregnancies found a small increase (3% to 24%) in the risk of major malformations and a risk of cardiovascular birth defects that did not differ from non-exposed pregnancies. Other studies have found an increased risk of cardiovascular birth defects among depressed mothers not undergoing SSRI treatment, suggesting the possibility of ascertainment bias, e.g. that worried mothers may pursue more aggressive testing of their infants. Another study found no increase in cardiovascular birth defects and a 27% increased risk of major malformations in SSRI exposed pregnancies.
The FDA issued a statement on 19 July 2006 stating nursing mothers on SSRIs must discuss treatment with their physicians. However, the medical literature on the safety of SSRIs has determined that some SSRIs like Sertraline and Paroxetine are considered safe for breastfeeding.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome
Several studies have documented neonatal abstinence syndrome, a syndrome of neurological, gastrointestinal, autonomic, endocrine and/or respiratory symptoms among a large minority of infants with intrauterine exposure. These syndromes are short-lived, but insufficient long-term data is available to determine whether there are long-term effects.
Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension
Persistent pulmonary hypertension (PPHN) is a serious and life-threatening, but very rare, lung condition that occurs soon after birth of the newborn. Newborn babies with PPHN have high pressure in their lung blood vessels and are not able to get enough oxygen into their bloodstream. About 1 to 2 babies per 1000 babies born in the US develop PPHN shortly after birth, and often they need intensive medical care. It is associated with about a 25% risk of significant long-term neurological deficits. A 2014 meta analysis found no increased risk of persistent pulmonary hypertension associated with exposure to SSRI’s in early pregnancy and a slight increase in risk associates with exposure late in pregnancy; “an estimated 286 to 351 women would need to be treated with an SSRI in late pregnancy to result in an average of one additional case of persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn.”. A review published in 2012 reached conclusions very similar to those of the 2014 study.
Neuropsychiatric Effects in Offspring
According to a 2015 review available data found that “some signal exists suggesting that antenatal exposure to SSRIs may increase the risk of ASDs (autism spectrum disorders)” even though a large cohort study published in 2013 and a cohort study using data from Finland’s national register between the years 1996 and 2010 and published in 2016 found no significant association between SSRI use and autism in offspring. The 2016 Finland study also found no association with ADHD, but did find an association with increased rates of depression diagnoses in early adolescence.
SSRIs appear safer in overdose when compared with traditional antidepressants, such as the tricyclic antidepressants. This relative safety is supported both by case series and studies of deaths per numbers of prescriptions. However, case reports of SSRI poisoning have indicated that severe toxicity can occur and deaths have been reported following massive single ingestions, although this is exceedingly uncommon when compared to the tricyclic antidepressants.
Because of the wide therapeutic index of the SSRIs, most patients will have mild or no symptoms following moderate overdoses. The most commonly reported severe effect following SSRI overdose is serotonin syndrome; serotonin toxicity is usually associated with very high overdoses or multiple drug ingestion. Other reported significant effects include coma, seizures, and cardiac toxicity.
In adults and children suffering from bipolar disorder, SSRIs may cause a bipolar switch from depression into hypomania/mania. When taken with mood stabilisers, the risk of switching is not increased, however when taking SSRI’s as a monotherapy, the risk of switching may be twice or three times that of the average. The changes are not often easy to detect and require monitoring by family and mental health professionals. This switch might happen even with no prior (hypo)manic episodes and might therefore not be foreseen by the psychiatrist.
The following drugs may precipitate serotonin syndrome in people on SSRIs:
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) including moclobemide, phenelzine, tranylcypromine, selegiline and methylene blue.
Painkillers of the NSAIDs drug family may interfere and reduce efficiency of SSRIs and may compound the increased risk of gastrointestinal bleeds caused by SSRI use. NSAIDs include:
Ibuprofen (Advil, Nurofen).
There are a number of potential pharmacokinetic interactions between the various individual SSRIs and other medications. Most of these arise from the fact that every SSRI has the ability to inhibit certain P450 cytochromes.
The CYP2D6 enzyme is entirely responsible for the metabolism of hydrocodone, codeine and dihydrocodeine to their active metabolites (hydromorphone, morphine, and dihydromorphine, respectively), which in turn undergo phase 2 glucuronidation. These opioids (and to a lesser extent oxycodone, tramadol, and methadone) have interaction potential with SSRIs. The concomitant use of some SSRIs (paroxetine and fluoxetine) with codeine may decrease the plasma concentration of active metabolite morphine, which may result in reduced analgesic efficacy.
Another important interaction of certain SSRIs involves paroxetine, a potent inhibitor of CYP2D6, and tamoxifen, an agent used commonly in the treatment and prevention of breast cancer. Tamoxifen is a prodrug that is metabolised by the hepatic cytochrome P450 enzyme system, especially CYP2D6, to its active metabolites. Concomitant use of paroxetine and tamoxifen in women with breast cancer is associated with a higher risk of death, as much as a 91% in women who used it the longest.
Although described as SNRIs, duloxetine (Cymbalta), venlafaxine (Effexor), and desvenlafaxine (Pristiq) are in fact relatively selective as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs). They are about at least 10-fold selective for inhibition of serotonin reuptake over norepinephrine reuptake. The selectivity ratios are approximately 1:30 for venlafaxine, 1:10 for duloxetine, and 1:14 for desvenlafaxine. At low doses, these SNRIs act mostly as SSRIs; only at higher doses do they also prominently inhibit norepinephrine reuptake. Milnacipran (Ixel, Savella) and its stereoisomer levomilnacipran (Fetzima) are the only widely marketed SNRIs that inhibit serotonin and norepinephrine to similar degrees, both with ratios close to 1:1.
Vilazodone (Viibryd) and vortioxetine (Trintellix) are SRIs that also act as modulators of serotonin receptors and are described as serotonin modulators and stimulators (SMS). Vilazodone is a 5-HT1A receptor partial agonist while vortioxetine is a 5-HT1A receptor agonist and 5-HT3 and 5-HT7 receptor antagonist. Litoxetine (SL 81-0385) and lubazodone (YM-992, YM-35995) are similar drugs that were never marketed. They are SRIs and litoxetine is also a 5-HT3 receptor antagonist while lubazodone is also a 5-HT2A receptor antagonist.
Mechanism of Action
Serotonin Reuptake Inhibition
In the brain, messages are passed from a nerve cell to another via a chemical synapse, a small gap between the cells. The presynaptic cell that sends the information releases neurotransmitters including serotonin into that gap. The neurotransmitters are then recognised by receptors on the surface of the recipient postsynaptic cell, which upon this stimulation, in turn, relays the signal. About 10% of the neurotransmitters are lost in this process; the other 90% are released from the receptors and taken up again by monoamine transporters into the sending presynaptic cell, a process called reuptake.
SSRIs inhibit the reuptake of serotonin. As a result, the serotonin stays in the synaptic gap longer than it normally would, and may repeatedly stimulate the receptors of the recipient cell. In the short run, this leads to an increase in signalling across synapses in which serotonin serves as the primary neurotransmitter. On chronic dosing, the increased occupancy of post-synaptic serotonin receptors signals the pre-synaptic neuron to synthesize and release less serotonin. Serotonin levels within the synapse drop, then rise again, ultimately leading to downregulation of post-synaptic serotonin receptors. Other, indirect effects may include increased norepinephrine output, increased neuronal cyclic AMP levels, and increased levels of regulatory factors such as BDNF and CREB. Owing to the lack of a widely accepted comprehensive theory of the biology of mood disorders, there is no widely accepted theory of how these changes lead to the mood-elevating and anti-anxiety effects of SSRIs. Any direct effects of SSRIs are limited by their inability to cross the blood-brain barrier; their effects on serotonin blood levels, which take weeks to take effect, appear to be largely responsible for their slow-to-appear psychiatric effects.
Sigma Receptor Ligands
In addition to their actions as reuptake inhibitors of serotonin, some SSRIs are also, coincidentally, ligands of the sigma receptors. Fluvoxamine is an agonist of the σ1 receptor, while sertraline is an antagonist of the σ1 receptor, and paroxetine does not significantly interact with the σ1 receptor. None of the SSRIs have significant affinity for the σ2 receptor, and the SNRIs, unlike the SSRIs, do not interact with either of the sigma receptors. Fluvoxamine has by far the strongest activity of the SSRIs at the σ1 receptor. High occupancy of the σ1 receptor by clinical dosages of fluvoxamine has been observed in the human brain in positron emission tomography (PET) research. It is thought that agonism of the σ1 receptor by fluvoxamine may have beneficial effects on cognition. In contrast to fluvoxamine, the relevance of the σ1 receptor in the actions of the other SSRIs is uncertain and questionable due to their very low affinity for the receptor relative to the SERT.
σ1 / SERT
Values are Ki (nM). The smaller the value, the more strongly the drug binds to the site.
The role of inflammation and the immune system in depression has been extensively studied. The evidence supporting this link has been shown in numerous studies over the past ten years. Nationwide studies and meta-analyses of smaller cohort studies have uncovered a correlation between pre-existing inflammatory conditions such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), or hepatitis, and an increased risk of depression. Data also shows that using pro-inflammatory agents in the treatment of diseases like melanoma can lead to depression. Several meta-analytical studies have found increased levels of proinflammatory cytokines and chemokines in depressed patients. This link has led scientists to investigate the effects of antidepressants on the immune system.
SSRIs were originally invented with the goal of increasing levels of available serotonin in the extracellular spaces. However, the delayed response between when patients first begin SSRI treatment to when they see effects has led scientists to believe that other molecules are involved in the efficacy of these drugs. To investigate the apparent anti-inflammatory effects of SSRIs, both Kohler et al. and Więdłocha et al. conducted meta-analyses which have shown that after antidepressant treatment the levels of cytokines associated with inflammation are decreased. A large cohort study conducted by researchers in the Netherlands investigated the association between depressive disorders, symptoms, and antidepressants with inflammation. The study showed decreased levels of interleukin (IL)-6, a cytokine that has proinflammatory effects, in patients taking SSRIs compared to non-medicated patients.
Treatment with SSRIs has shown reduced production of inflammatory cytokines such as IL-1β, tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-α, IL-6, and interferon (IFN)-γ, which leads to a decrease in inflammation levels and subsequently a decrease in the activation level of the immune response. These inflammatory cytokines have been shown to activate microglia which are specialised macrophages that reside in the brain. Macrophages are a subset of immune cells responsible for host defence in the innate immune system. Macrophages can release cytokines and other chemicals to cause an inflammatory response. Peripheral inflammation can induce an inflammatory response in microglia and can cause neuroinflammation. SSRIs inhibit proinflammatory cytokine production which leads to less activation of microglia and peripheral macrophages. SSRIs not only inhibit the production of these proinflammatory cytokines, they also have been shown to upregulate anti-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-10. Taken together, this reduces the overall inflammatory immune response.
In addition to affecting cytokine production, there is evidence that treatment with SSRIs has effects on the proliferation and viability of immune system cells involved in both innate and adaptive immunity. Evidence shows that SSRIs can inhibit proliferation in T-cells, which are important cells for adaptive immunity and can induce inflammation. SSRIs can also induce apoptosis, programmed cell death, in T-cells. The full mechanism of action for the anti-inflammatory effects of SSRIs is not fully known. However, there is evidence for various pathways to have a hand in the mechanism. One such possible mechanism is the increased levels of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) as a result of interference with activation of protein kinase A (PKA), a cAMP dependent protein. Other possible pathways include interference with calcium ion channels, or inducing cell death pathways like MAPK and Notch signalling pathway.
The anti-inflammatory effects of SSRIs have prompted studies of the efficacy of SSRIs in the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, RA, inflammatory bowel diseases, and septic shock. These studies have been performed in animal models but have shown consistent immune regulatory effects. Fluoxetine, an SSRI, has also shown efficacy in animal models of graft vs. host disease. SSRIs have also been used successfully as pain relievers in patients undergoing oncology treatment. The effectiveness of this has been hypothesized to be at least in part due to the anti-inflammatory effects of SSRIs.
Refer to Pharmacogenetics.
Large bodies of research are devoted to using genetic markers to predict whether patients will respond to SSRIs or have side effects that will cause their discontinuation, although these tests are not yet ready for widespread clinical use.
SSRIs are described as ‘selective’ because they affect only the reuptake pumps responsible for serotonin, as opposed to earlier antidepressants, which affect other monoamine neurotransmitters as well, and as a result, SSRIs have fewer side effects.
There appears to be no significant difference in effectiveness between SSRIs and tricyclic antidepressants, which were the most commonly used class of antidepressants before the development of SSRIs. However, SSRIs have the important advantage that their toxic dose is high, and, therefore, they are much more difficult to use as a means to commit suicide. Further, they have fewer and milder side effects. Tricyclic antidepressants also have a higher risk of serious cardiovascular side effects, which SSRIs lack.
SSRIs act on signal pathways such as cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) on the postsynaptic neuronal cell, which leads to the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF enhances the growth and survival of cortical neurons and synapses.
A study examining publication of results from FDA-evaluated antidepressants concluded that those with favourable results were much more likely to be published than those with negative results. Furthermore, an investigation of 185 meta-analyses on antidepressants found that 79% of them had authors affiliated in some way to pharmaceutical companies and that they were reluctant to report caveats for antidepressants.
David Healy has argued that warning signs were available for many years prior to regulatory authorities moving to put warnings on antidepressant labels that they might cause suicidal thoughts. At the time these warnings were added, others argued that the evidence for harm remained unpersuasive and others continued to do so after the warnings were added.
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