It May Be 10 Years Before New Antidepressants Hit the Market, Scientists Say

By Dorri Olds 01/19/17

As depression rates continue to rise, why isn't funding research a top priority for Big Pharma?

Doctor holding a bottle of pills.

Despite growing rates of depression, it may be at least 10 years before pharmaceutical companies invest in developing new antidepressant medications. The reason? The financial risk is too high.

At a recent media briefing, Guy Goodwin, a professor of psychiatry at Oxford University said, “We are not going to get any more new drugs for depression in the next decade simply because the pharmaceutical industry is not investing in research. It can’t make money on these drugs. It costs approximately $1 billion to do all the trials before you launch a new drug.”

Goodwin said, “It’s partly a failure of science, to be frank. Scientists have to ... get more of an understanding about how these things actually work before we can then propose ways to improve them.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls depression a common mental disorder. It estimates that the total number of those suffering from depression is 350 million worldwide.

The Fix reached out to neuroscientist Apryl Pooley, who said, “What we’re seeing here is a consequence of commodifying and assigning a market value to human health. This is not a ‘failure of science,’ this is a failure of capitalism. The pharmaceutical industry has made billions of dollars over the last four decades promoting the ‘chemical model of mental illness,’ meaning that a chemical imbalance is the primary cause of mental illness and it can be corrected with drugs that influence the chemical makeup of the brain.”

However, this isn’t the only cause of mental illness and may not even be the primary cause of it. Pooley said, “The brain is made up of more than chemicals. What controls the chemical release in the brain is electricity, and studies modulating the electrical activity of the brain using neurofeedback or deep brain stimulation have been compellingly successful, in that the patients in these studies showed permanent improvement after just a handful of treatment sessions.”

But Pooley pointed out that other means of treating depression—like yoga, meditation and psychotherapy—are problematic for a for-profit healthcare industry that craves a "return on investment." She said, “Other treatment options are relatively cheap, can’t be bottled, and people may not necessarily need to use them for the rest of their lives.”

Part of the solution to coming up with new treatments for depression is to ramp up federal funding for this research and implement healthcare practices that make successful treatments accessible to everyone who needs them. “But that cannot happen when people are trying to profit off of depression,” said Pooley.

Pooley also pointed out that the vast majority of the research that was done to develop the antidepressant drugs we have today was done on male subjects only. “There is no reason to believe that any of these treatments work the same in women,” said Pooley. “That could be contributing to the failure of these drugs in half of patients. That part of it is a failure of science.”

For more than 50 years of intense research, the medical community has failed to identify depression in the brain, and the chemical imbalance theory of depression—still promoted by Big Pharma and the medical profession—has not been proven.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.