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Retinoic Acid and Affective Disorders: The Evidence for an Association

J Clin Psychiatry 2012;73(1):37-50
10.4088/JCP.10r05993

Objective: Isotretinoin (13-cis-retinoic acid), approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of acne, carries a black box warning related to the risk of depression, suicide, and psychosis. Retinoic acid, the active form of vitamin A, regulates gene expression in the brain, and isotretinoin is its 13-cis isomer. Retinoids represent a group of compounds derived from vitamin A that perform a large variety of functions in many systems, in particular the central nervous system, and abnormal retinoid levels can have neurologic effects. Although infrequent, proper recognition and treatment of psychiatric side effects in acne patients is critical given the risk of death and disability. This article reviews the evidence for isotretinoin’s relationships with depression and suicidality.

Data Sources: The PsycINFO, MEDLINE, and PubMed searchable database indexes were searched for articles published in the English language from 1960 to June 2010 using the key words isotretinoin, retinoids, retinoic acid, depression, depressive disorders, and vitamin A. Evidence examined includes (1) case reports; (2) temporal association between onset of depression and exposure to the drug; (3) challenge-rechallenge cases; (4) class effect (other compounds in the same class, like vitamin A, having similar neuropsychiatric effects); (5) dose response; and (6) biologically plausible mechanisms.

Study Selection: All articles in the literature related to isotretinoin, depression, and suicide were reviewed, as well as articles related to class effect, dose response, and biologic plausibility.

Data Extraction: Information from individual articles in the literature was extracted, including number of episodes of depression, suicidality, suicide, psychosis, violence and aggression, past psychiatric history, time of onset in relation to isotretinoin usage, medication dosage, duration of treatment, and dechallenge and challenge history.

Results: The literature reviewed is consistent with associations of isotretinoin administration with depression and with suicide in a subgroup of vulnerable individuals.

Conclusions: The relationship between isotretinoin and depression may have implications for a greater understanding of the neurobiology of affective disorders.

J Clin Psychiatry 2012; 73(1):​​37-50