We should reconsider how we use antidepressants more effectively. The latest studies have shown that antidepressants restore the capacity of certain areas of the brain to repair abnormal neural pathways. According to neuroscientist Eero Castrén, the recipient of EUR 2.5 million of ERC funding, recovery requires redirection of these pathways through practice, rehabilitation or therapy.
This is a surprisingly blunt view, even for a respected neuroscientist such as Eero Castrén. After all, millions of people throughout the world have been prescribed antidepressants, and pharmaceutical companies have made a billion-dollar business out of selling them. Surely the system cannot be entirely wrong?
Recent studies suggest that this may be the case. Research on animal models demonstrates that antidepressants are not a cure as such. Rather, their role is to restore plasticity in the adult brain. Antidepressants reopen a window of brain plasticity, which allows the formation and adaptation of brain connections through the patient's own activities and observations, similarly to a young child whose brain and experiences about the world develop in response to environmental stimuli.
Correcting abnormal pathways
When cerebral plasticity is reopened, problems caused by false connections in the brain can be addressed. Such problems can be manifested, for example, as phobias. Studies conducted on animal models by Professor Eero Castrén's research group at the University of Helsinki show that therapy helps to reduce fears for a time, but an antidepressant alone provides no relief. By combining the two, however, long-term effects can be achieved.
"Simply taking drugs is not enough. We must also show the brain what the desired connections should be," Professor Castrén of the Neuroscience Centre explains.