SSRI and Stimulants: Frying the Brain
Dr. Cheney recently came across some information regarding the dangers of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIÌs), such as Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil, and stimulants like Ritalin and Provigil.
When talking with patients, Cheney usually opens the book to a picture of a monkey's brain before and after it received a very potent SSRI. The "before" photo shows a dark background filled with fine white lines and white blobs, healthy neurons. The "after" photo is very dark, only a few white lines and blobs remain. Most of the brain cells had been "fried".
SSRIs and stimulants work by increasing the firing of neurons. While this often has great benefits in the short term, doctors are now realizing that long term use "fries" brain cells. The body views any neuron that fires excessively over time as damaged, and destroys it. SSRIs and stimulants, taken over a period of 10 years or so, can lead to a loss of brain
cells, causing neurodegenerative disorders. Many doctors have recently seen a sudden increase in patients with neurological symptoms, and most have been on Prozac, or a similar drug, for about 10 years. Cheney is seeing this in his own practice.
During office visits, Cheney also shows patients a copy of the May 22, 2000 issue of Newsweek with Michael J. Fox on the cover. It has an excellent article on Parkinson's
Disease, a condition that involves a loss of neurons in the area associated with motor control. Parkinson's drugs stimulate the remaining neurons to "perform heroically", firing excessively. However, the article notes that while benefits are seen initially, neurological symptoms get much worse at the three to five-year point. Patients experience wild involuntary movements, etc. These drugs, though helpful in the short term, actually speed up the degenerative process.
What mechanisms are at work causing neurons to be "fried"? SSRIs are often prescribed for depression, which involves a lack of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger. One neuron releases a burst of it into the intersynaptic cleft, (the gap between neurons). The serotonin is then taken up by special receptors in the adjacent neuron. Thus a message is sent from one neuron to another, with serotonin carrying the message across the gap. Excess serotonin is cleared away before a new message is sent.