A Pill To Prevent Depression?

By Victoria Kim 09/20/17

A new study examined the benefits of pre-medicating with antidepressants to curb depression.

woman dressed in white holding a pill towards the camera.

“Can taking a pill really protect us from the emotional ravages of stroke or cancer?” 

This is a question posed by Nathaniel Morris, a resident physician in psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Writing for the Washington Post, Morris explores the concept of pre-medicating certain high-risk individuals with antidepressants, and the research behind it.

The idea of “prophylactic antidepressants” is both new and controversial. The research on it so far has offered promising results, though there hasn’t yet been larger trials examining this type of preemptive medicating.

One 2013 study conducted by a team of Nebraska researchers gave a group of patients with head and neck cancer antidepressants prior to treatment. According to some studies, up to half of patients with these types of cancers may experience depression. They are subject to potentially debilitating surgery and radiation treatments, and basic functions like speaking and swallowing are affected, Morris notes.

The results showed that patients who were given antidepressants prior to treatment were 60% less likely to experience depression. 

Another 2014 meta-analysis examined this effect on hepatitis C patients, and found that giving patients antidepressants to prevent depression was able to cut depressive episodes by more than 40%.

Despite these findings, Morris points out that already as many as 1 in 8 Americans use antidepressants every year—do we really need more people taking these mood-regulating pills? 

The resident psychiatrist suggests therapy and counseling may work just as well to keep high-risk individuals from “sliding into clinical depression.” Pills can only do so much.

“We may never be able to take away the stress of a disfiguring surgery, the despair from losing the ability to speak or the sadness that comes with a cancer diagnosis,” says Morris. “But these studies suggest that doctors may be able to prepare patients for challenging situations in ways that protect them from sliding into clinical depression.”

“Some patients may benefit from early use of antidepressants, others with therapy or a combination of the two,” he concludes.

A similar concept is being studied with ketamine, the anesthetic also known as a popular party drug for its dissociative and euphoric effects. Fast Company reported this past April that neuroscientists are trying to develop a drug that “increases resilience” to stress and depression. 

A 2015 study by Columbia University researchers gave mice a single low-dose ketamine injection before exposing them to stressors, and found that “giving ketamine before a stressor protected the mice against depressive behavior.” Interestingly, the study also found that a common antidepressant called fluoxetine was not able to produce this same effect.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr