New research continues to indicate that our understanding of the link between serotonin and anxiety is wrong. For many years, literally for half a century in fact, doctors and pharmacologists have worked under the assumption that anxiety is, in part, caused by low serotonin. A whole suite of medications - Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs - have been prescribed for decades based on this assumption. However, new research from multiple universities shows this assumption to be incorrect.
A recent study written by researchers from Uppsala University and published in the JAMA Psychiatry (Journal of American Medicine Association) concludes that people with social anxiety actually have too much serotonin, NOT too little. These researchers used relatively new chemical tracers that, when viewed through a special camera, light up in the presence of serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical that the nerve cells in our brains release and receive in order to send signals back and forth to one another. Using this technique, researchers were able to show that study participants with social anxiety had significantly more serotonin present traveling between nerve cells. Now from a completely non-scientific perspective, these results make sense to me. I don't know about anybody else, but when I was most anxious, my brain didn't feel like it was sending too few messages. It was on overdrive, let me tell you!
This new research adds to a growing body of evidence that decades old assumptions about the link between anxiety and serotonin and our widespread use of SSRIs to treat anxiety is incorrect. Earlier this year a separate team of researchers found evidence to suggest that as the brain responds to anxiety is shifts serotonin from some areas of the brain to others and that SSRIs get in the way of the brain healing itself. I wrote a short summary of that research in a previous post if you care to read it here. Let's hope all this new research helps us change our approach to anxiety treatment.