Antidepressants and the adolescent brain

Lesley Cousins, Ian M Goodyer
Journal of Psychopharmacology 2015, 29 (5): 545-55
Major unipolar depression is a significant global health problem, with the highest incident risk being during adolescence. A depressive illness during this period is associated with negative long-term consequences including suicide, additional psychiatric comorbidity, interpersonal relationship problems, poor educational performance and poor employment attainment well into adult life. Despite previous safety concerns, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) remain a key component of the treatment of moderate to severe depression episodes in adolescents. The impact of SSRIs on the developing adolescent brain, however, remains unclear. In this review we first consider what is currently known about the developing brain during adolescence and how these development processes may be affected by a depressive illness. We then review our understanding of the action of SSRIs, their effects on the brain and how these may differ between adults and adolescents. We conclude that there is currently little evidence to indicate that the human adolescent brain is at developmental risk from SSRIs. Furthermore, there is no clear-cut evidence to support the concerns of marked suicidal adverse side effects accruing in depressed adolescents being treated with SSRIs. Neither, however, is there irrefutable evidence to dismiss all such concerns. This makes SSRI prescribing a matter of medical judgement, ensuring the benefits outweigh the risks for the individual patients, as with so much in therapeutics. Overall, SSRIs show clinical benefits that we judge to outweigh the risks to neurodevelopment and are an important therapeutic choice in the treatment of moderate to severe adolescent depression.

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