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Popular antidepressants numb pleasure as well as pain: study


You take the good with the bad — or neither.

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge found that common antidepressants cause “emotional blunting” — numbing not just the hard times, but all sentiments — in nearly half of users.

Most of these medications are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that target serotonin, a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells in the brain and the rest of the body — otherwise coined the “pleasure chemical.”

An estimated 40-60% of those prescribed SSRIs will experience “emotional blunting,” and lose interest in the aspects of life that used to bring them joy.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge collaborated with the University of Copenhagen to recruit 66 healthy volunteers, 32 of whom were given the SSRI escitalopram — which goes by brand names Lexapro and Cipralex, among others — while the remaining 34 participants were given a placebo.

After 21 days, the participants completed a self-report questionnaire and several tests to assess cognitive functions including learning, inhibition, executive function, reinforcement behavior and decision-making.

Most antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), meaning they target serotonin.
Dave Penman/Shutterstock

The findings, published in Neuropsychopharmacology, found that those who were given escitalopram were less likely to use positive and negative feedback to guide their learning and decision-making, suggesting that the drug affected their sensitivity towards those types of feelings.

The results of the questionnaire also showed that those taking escitalopram had more trouble reaching orgasm when having sex.

“Emotional blunting is a common side effect of SSRI antidepressants. In a way, this may be in part how they work – they take away some of the emotional pain that people who experience depression feel, but, unfortunately, it seems that they also take away some of the enjoyment. From our study, we can now see that this is because they become less sensitive to rewards, which provide important feedback,” Senior Author Professor Barbara Sahakian said in a university news release.

Before the pandemic, the CDC reported that one in 10 Americans aged 12 and over were on antidepressants and the increasing mental health crisis is expected to have increased that ratio.

Just this month, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline reported over 2 million calls, texts and chats since the phone number was shortened to three digits last summer.


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