Distinguishing Roles for Norepinephrine and Serotonin in the Behavioral Effects of Antidepressant Drugs

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Antidepressant drugs have typically been classified into sets of compounds with actions targeted at serotonin (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors [SSRIs]), norepinephrine (norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors [NRIs]), or both neurotransmitters (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors). Their classification has been based predominantly on their acute pharmacologic effects, usually determined by in vitro radioligand binding assays. The pharmacologic selectivity of antidepressants can be altered after their systemic administration, however, by dose, drug metabolism, physiologic interactions between neurotransmitters, and adaptive effects that emerge after chronic administration. This review examines whether pharmacologic selectivity is maintained by different types of antidepressants in vivo and whether pharmacologic selectivity matters for the production of their behavioral effects. Antidepressants increase extracellular levels of neurotransmitters according to their ability to inhibit presynaptic transporters, although physiologic interactions among neurotransmitters can influence antidepressants’ selectivity in certain brain regions. Chronic administration of many antidepressants also causes down-regulation of postsynaptic and presynaptic receptors. The pattern of responses of presynaptic markers suggests that pharmacologic selectivity is maintained after chronic administration of many antidepressants. Behavioral tests indicate that depletion of serotonin (5-HT) is capable of preventing the effects produced by SSRIs but not NRIs. The depletion of catecholamines also inhibits the effects of NRIs, although test results can be complicated by inhibition of motor activity. Depletion of norepinephrine may also inhibit the effects of some SSRIs, but not highly selective SSRIs like citalopram. Although the pattern of results from in vivo tests supports the concept that parallel neurotransmitter mechanisms lead to antidepressant activity, norepinephrine may participate in the effects of some SSRIs. It is also possible that compounds with dual actions at 5-HT and norepinephrine systems may be effective under circumstances in which selective antidepressants are ineffective.

J Clin Psychiatry 2004;65(suppl 4):11-24