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8 Common Misconceptions About Antidepressants

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Think you have depression, but feeling uncomfortable about the idea of treating it with medication? Each person’s treatment plan is unique, but if you feel like your life could be improved by antidepressants, you shouldn’t let the many common myths and misconceptions surrounding their use keep you from seeking the help you need.

Mental Floss spoke with Dr. David Mischoulon, director of research at Massachusetts General Hospital's Depression Clinical and Research Program, who set the record straight on some common misconceptions about antidepressants.

1. THE MYTH: ANTIDEPRESSANTS DON'T ADDRESS THE ROOT CAUSE OF DEPRESSION.

There are multiple factors that can contribute to depression, ranging from environmental or situational components to brain biochemistry. Medication can help when the underlying cause is partly biological in nature.

“For example, there are some people who may develop depression for no apparent reason,” Dr. Mischoulon says. “There is absolutely no particular stress in their lives. There hasn’t been any misfortune of any sort. In fact, they’ll often say, ‘I’ve got a life that most of the world would envy,’ and yet they’re depressed ... Those people often respond very well to antidepressants, and in that sense, [the medicine] is getting at the root cause [of the depression], which is a biochemical imbalance in the brain.”

At the other end of the spectrum, some people “may become depressed primarily because of situational problems,” Mischoulon adds. "They may be experiencing problems in the workplace, family problems, or a divorce, things like that. Those factors can certainly contribute to depression—perhaps in combination with a proclivity to becoming depressed, or because … the stress is just so, so tremendous that the person becomes depressed as a result.”

Sometimes these individuals may not respond to antidepressants because the root cause is situational. If their situations were to improve—say, they got a better job—they might start feeling better. Therapy might also help them develop better coping skills.

“There are certain kinds of therapies that have been carefully studied in clinical trials, and for many [depression] cases, they can work very well,” Mischoulon says. “For example, cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the better studied forms; it’s been shown in some studies to be as effective as antidepressants.”

That said, research also suggests that for many people, treating depression with a combination of therapy and medication can be the best course of treatment. “The two will work synergistically," Mischoulon explains. "By combining the two you can get a better result.” (If you're thinking about beginning therapy, here's a guide to figuring out which type is best for you.)

Mental health researchers are trying to pinpoint ways to differentiate between a biochemical depression and situational depression. But as of right now, "we’re not at a point where we can use what we've learned in a clinical setting," Mischoulon says.

2. THE MYTH: ANTIDEPRESSANTS ARE "HAPPY PILLS."

“If I give an antidepressant to a healthy individual—someone who’s not depressed—they’re not going to be happier, or more cheerful” as a result of taking it, Mischoulon says. “It only works to return the mood to the patient’s normal baseline. So if you’re depressed, the antidepressant can help you get back to where you were.”

3. THE MYTH: ANTIDEPRESSANTS ARE ADDICTIVE.

Antidepressants “aren’t drugs of abuse,” Mischoulon says. They may improve your depression symptoms, which can lead to increased energy levels and an improved mood, but they won’t get you high or make you crave additional or stronger doses—all hallmarks of addiction.

However, since your body grows accustomed to the drug, you may experience withdrawal syndromes—including headaches, dizziness, nausea, and irritability—if you stop taking it abruptly, “similarly to what you might have with a recreational drug,” Mischoulon explains. If you’re thinking about discontinuing an antidepressant, check with your doctor first. He or she will likely recommend that you taper your dosage over a period of days or weeks, depending on the medication.

4. THE MYTH: ANTIDEPRESSANTS WILL PERMANENTLY ALTER YOUR PERSONALITY.

Taking the right antidepressant can slowly help a depressed person return to his or her baseline mood, making them feel and act more like “themselves." That said, Mischoulon does say that some patients on antidepressants “report being emotionally numbed, like they can’t experience normal emotions.” There aren’t many prospective or systematic studies that examine this phenomenon, but Mischoulon estimates that maybe 10 percent of the patients in his practice have reported it. It's "a relatively small minority," he adds. 

If this happens to you, don’t worry: It’s usually "not a known cause for concern,” Mischoulon says. This won’t “cause permanent damage to someone’s personality, or their capacity to feel emotions … It’s simply a matter of discontinuing the antidepressant and trying another one.”

5. THE MYTH: ANTIDEPRESSANTS ARE A SHORT-TERM FIX.

If you were successfully treated with antidepressants, you may want to speak with your doctor about continuing to take them as a preventative measure, even if you now feel fine. Research shows that experiencing just one episode of depression puts a person at a 50 percent risk for experiencing another episode, and increases their chances for future relapse.

Some doctors suggest treating conditions like major depression in the same way that you would a chronic illness—with lifelong management. “The good thing is that most antidepressants are very safe to take over the long term, so if a person had to take one indefinitely, it’s not the worst thing in the world,” Mischoulon says.

That said, if you’ve responded well to treatment and don’t have a prior history of depressive episodes, there’s a chance that you’ll be OK if you come off them under a doctor’s supervision.

6. THE MYTH: IF YOU TRY ONE ANTIDEPRESSANT AND IT DOESN'T WORK, MEDICATION ISN'T FOR YOU.

Once you begin taking an antidepressant, it can take weeks, if not months, to feel the full effects. And since there’s currently no good way to predict which antidepressant will work for any one individual, there’s always the chance that the one you’re trying may end up not being the right one for you. If this ends up being the case, you’ll have to begin the cycle anew—this time, with a different pill.

This trial-and-error process can be discouraging for some patients. Keep in mind, however, that there are more than two dozen antidepressants on the market—meaning there’s a good chance you’ll find something that alleviates your symptoms.

“There are antidepressants from different families that differ biochemically,” Mischoulon explains. “What we find is that a lot of people will take a particular type of antidepressant and it may not work, and then they’ll try an antidepressant from another family, and that one will work better for them.”

7. THE MYTH: ALL ANTIDEPRESSANTS HAVE AWFUL, LONG-LASTING SIDE EFFECTS.

From insomnia to blurred vision to fatigue, the long checklist of potential side effects included in your medicine packet can be intimidating, if not downright frightening. Don’t worry: The likelihood that you’ll experience every single one of them is slim, Mischoulon says. Most people only encounter one or two; common side effects include upset stomach, headaches, weight gain, and sedation, but side effects vary from one medication to the next. (For example, on average, Mischoulon estimates that about 15 percent of his patients report weight gain.)

These side effects are sometimes short-term, popping up during the initial stages of treatment and tapering off as the patient’s body gets used to the medication. Still, in other cases, they persist. In the latter instance, you may want to talk with your doctor about switching to another medication or the best way to treat your side effects.

8. THE MYTH: DOCTORS OVERTREAT AMERICANS FOR DEPRESSION.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, antidepressants were the third most commonly prescribed drug taken by Americans of all ages between 2005 and 2008. (Though not all patients take antidepressants for depression and anxiety; they can also be used to treat other issues, including insomnia and chronic pain.) Are these medications overprescribed to patients?

“I think in certain circles they may be overprescribed, and in others they may be underprescribed,” Mischoulon says. “What we do know is that there are a lot of people with depression out there who are not being adequately treated … This could apply to antidepressants, as well as psychotherapy. A lot of people are not getting treatment at all who should be getting some treatment.”

People with depression don’t receive care for a variety of reasons, Mischoulon points out: Stigma, a lack of education, limited economic resources, or not living near a health care professional for treatment are just a few examples. That said, there can be dire repercussions for those who don't seek treatment, including suicide and worsened outcomes for concurrent medical conditions, like cardiovascular disease.

If you think you have depression and have the means to see a doctor, "get a professional evaluation," Mischoulon advises. "Don’t try to self-diagnose. Don’t try to treat it yourself with over-the-counter supplements. Speak to your primary care doctor, and maybe speak to a psychiatrist ... If not treated properly, depression can have devastating consequences."

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6 Radiant Facts About Irène Joliot-Curie
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Though her accomplishments are often overshadowed by those of her parents, the elder daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie was a brilliant researcher in her own right.

1. SHE WAS BORN TO, AND FOR, GREATNESS.

A black and white photo of Irene and Marie Curie in the laboratory in 1925.
Irène and Marie in the laboratory, 1925.
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Irène’s birth in Paris in 1897 launched what would become a world-changing scientific dynasty. A restless Marie rejoined her loving husband in the laboratory shortly after the baby’s arrival. Over the next 10 years, the Curies discovered radium and polonium, founded the science of radioactivity, welcomed a second daughter, Eve, and won a Nobel Prize in Physics. The Curies expected their daughters to excel in their education and their work. And excel they did; by 1925, Irène had a doctorate in chemistry and was working in her mother’s laboratory.

2. HER PARENTS' MARRIAGE WAS A MODEL FOR HER OWN.

Like her mother, Irène fell in love in the lab—both with her work and with another scientist. Frédéric Joliot joined the Curie team as an assistant. He and Irène quickly bonded over shared interests in sports, the arts, and human rights. The two began collaborating on research and soon married, equitably combining their names and signing their work Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie.

3. SHE AND HER HUSBAND WERE AN UNSTOPPABLE PAIR.

Black and white photo of Irène and Fréderic Joliot-Curie working side by side in their laboratory.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Their passion for exploration drove them ever onward into exciting new territory. A decade of experimentation yielded advances in several disciplines. They learned how the thyroid gland absorbs radioiodine and how the body metabolizes radioactive phosphates. They found ways to coax radioactive isotopes from ordinarily non-radioactive materials—a discovery that would eventually enable both nuclear power and atomic weaponry, and one that earned them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.

4. THEY FOUGHT FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE.

The humanist principles that initially drew Irène and Frédéric together only deepened as they grew older. Both were proud members of the Socialist Party and the Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes (Vigilance Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals). They took great pains to keep atomic research out of Nazi hands, sealing and hiding their research as Germany occupied their country, Irène also served as undersecretary of state for scientific research of the Popular Front government.

5. SHE WAS NOT CONTENT WITH THE STATUS QUO.

Irène eventually scaled back her time in the lab to raise her children Hélène and Pierre. But she never slowed down, nor did she stop fighting for equality and freedom for all. Especially active in women’s rights groups, she became a member of the Comité National de l'Union des Femmes Françaises and the World Peace Council.

6. SHE WORKED HERSELF TO DEATH.

Irène’s extraordinary life was a mirror of her mother’s. Tragically, her death was, too. Years of watching radiation poisoning and cancer taking their toll on Marie never dissuaded Irène from her work. In 1956, dying of leukemia, she entered the Curie Hospital, where she followed her mother’s luminous footsteps into the great beyond.

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This Soft Artificial Heart May One Day Shorten the Heart Transplant List
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ETH Zurich

If the heart in the Functional Materials Laboratory at ETH Zurich University were in a patient in an operating room, its vital signs would not be good. In fact, it would be in heart failure. Thankfully, it's not in a patient—and it's not even real. This heart is made of silicone.

Suspended in a metal frame and connected by tubes to trays of water standing in for blood, the silicone heart pumps water at a beat per second—a serious athlete's resting heart rate—in an approximation of the circulatory system. One valve is leaking, dripping onto the grate below, and the water bins are jerry-rigged with duct tape. If left to finish out its life to the final heartbeat, it would last for about 3000 beats before it ruptured. That's about 30 minutes—not long enough to finish an episode of Grey's Anatomy

Nicolas Cohrs, a bioengineering Ph.D. student from the university, admits that the artificial heart is usually in better shape. The one he holds in his hands—identical to the first—feels like taut but pliable muscle, and is intact and dry. He'd hoped to demonstrate a new and improved version of the heart, but that one is temporarily lost, likely hiding in a box somewhere at the airport in Tallinn, Estonia, where the researchers recently attended a symposium.

Taking place over the past three years, the experimental research is a part of Zurich Heart, a project involving 17 researchers from multiple institutions, including ETH, the University of Zurich, University Hospital of Zurich, and the German Heart Institute in Berlin, which has the largest artificial heart program in Europe.

A BRIDGE TO TRANSPLANT—OR TO DEATH

Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support the organs; common causes are coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. It's a global pandemic, threatening 26 million people worldwide every year. More than a quarter of them are in the U.S. alone, and the numbers are rising.

It's a life-threatening disease, but depending on the severity of the condition at the time of diagnosis, it's not necessarily an immediate death sentence. About half of the people in the U.S. diagnosed with the disease die within five years. Right now in the U.S., there are nearly 4000 people on the national heart transplant list, but they're a select few; it's estimated that upwards of 100,000 people need a new heart. Worldwide, demand for a new heart greatly outpaces supply, and many people die waiting for one.

That's why Cohrs, co-researcher Anastasios Petrou, and their colleagues are attempting to create an artificial heart modeled after each patient's own heart that would, ideally, last for the rest of a person's life.

Mechanical assistance devices for failing hearts exist, but they have serious limitations. Doctors treating heart failure have two options: a pump placed next to the heart, generally on the left side, that pumps the blood for the heart (what's known as a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD), or a total artificial heart (TAH). There have been a few total artificial hearts over the years, and at least four others are in development right now in Europe and the U.S. But only one currently has FDA approval and CE marking (allowing its use in European Union countries): the SynCardia total artificial heart. It debuted in the early '90s, and since has been implanted in nearly 1600 people worldwide.

While all implants come with side effects, especially when the immune system grows hostile toward a foreign object in the body, a common problem with existing total artificial hearts is that they're composed of hard materials, which can cause blood to clot. Such clots can lead to thrombosis and strokes, so anyone with an artificial heart has to take anticoagulants. In fact, Cohrs tells Mental Floss, patients with some sort of artificial heart implant—either a LVAD or a TAH—die more frequently from a stroke or an infection than they do from the heart condition that led to the implant. Neurological damage and equipment breakdown are risky side effects as well.

These complications mean that total artificial hearts are "bridges"—either to a new heart, or to death. They're designed to extend the life of a critically ill patient long enough to get on (or to the top of) the heart transplant list, or, if they're not a candidate for transplant, to make the last few years of a person's life more functional. A Turkish patient currently holds the record for the longest time living with a SynCardia artificial heart: The implant has been in his chest for five years. Most TAH patients live at least one year, but survival rates drop off after that.

The ETH team set out to make an artificial heart that would be not a bridge, but a true replacement. "When we heard about these problems, we thought about how we can make an artificial heart that doesn't have side effects," he recalls.

USING AN ANCIENT TECHNIQUE TO MAKE A MODERN MARVEL

Using common computer assisted design (CAD) software, they designed an ersatz organ composed of soft material that hews closely to the composition, form, and function of the human heart. "Our working hypothesis is that when you have such a device which mimics the human heart in function and form, you will have less side effects," Cohrs says.

To create a heart, "we take a CT scan of a patient, then put it into a computer file and design the artificial heart around it in close resemblance to the patient's heart, so it always fits inside [the body]," Cohrs says.

But though it's modeled on a patient's heart and looks eerily like one, it's not identical to the real organ. For one thing, it can't move on its own, so the team had to make some modifications. They omitted the upper chambers, called atria, which collect and store blood, but included the lower chambers, called ventricles, which pump blood. In a real heart, the left and right sides are separated by the septum. Here, the team replaced the septum with an expansion chamber that is inflated and deflated with pressurized air. This action mimics heart muscle contractions that push blood from the heart.

The next step was to 3D-print a negative mold of the heart in ABS, a thermoplastic commonly used in 3D printing. It takes about 40 hours on the older-model 3D printers they have in the lab. They then filled this mold with the "heart" material—initially silicone—and let it cure for 36 hours, first at room temperature and then in an oven kept at a low temperature (about 150°F). The next day, they bathed it in a solvent of acetone, which dissolved the mold but left the printed heart alone. This process is essentially lost-wax casting, a technique used virtually unchanged for the past 4000 years to make metal objects, especially bronze. It takes about four days.

The resulting soft heart weighs about 13 ounces—about one-third more than an average adult heart (about 10 ounces). If implanted in a body, it would be sutured to the valves, arteries, and veins that bring blood through the body. Like existing ventricular assist devices and total artificial hearts on the market, it would be powered by a portable pneumatic driver worn externally by the patient.

FROM 3000 TO 1 MILLION HEARTBEATS

In April 2016, they did a feasibility test to see if their silicone organ could pump blood like a real heart. First they incorporated state-of-the-art artificial valves used every day in heart surgeries around the world. These would direct the flow of blood. Then, collaborating with a team of mechanical engineers from ETH, they placed the heart in a hybrid mock circulation machine, which measures and simulates the human cardiovascular system. "You can really measure the relevant data without having to put your heart into an animal," says Cohrs.

Here's what the test looked like.

"Our results were very nice," Cohrs says. "When you look at the pressure waveform in the aorta, it really looked like the pressure waveform from the human heart, so that blood flow is very comparable to the blood flow from a real human heart."

Their results were published earlier this year in the journal Artificial Organs.

But less promising was the number of heartbeats the heart lasted before rupturing under stress. (On repeated tests, the heart always ruptured in the same place: a weak point between the expansion chamber and the left ventricle where the membrane was apparently too thin.) With the average human heart beating 2.5 billion times in a lifetime, 3000 heartbeats wouldn't get a patient far.

But they're making progress. Since then, they've switched the heart material from silicone to a high-tech polymer. The latest version of the heart—one of which was stuck in that box in the Tallinn airport—lasts for 1 million heartbeats. That's an exponential increase from 3000—but it's still only about 10 days' worth of life.

Right now, the heart costs around $400 USD to produce, "but when you want to do it under conditions where you can manufacture a device where it can be implanted into a body, it will be much more expensive," Cohrs says.

The researchers know they're far from having produced an implantable TAH; this soft heart represents a new concept for future artificial heart development that could one day lead to transplant centers using widely available, easy-to-use design software and commercially available 3D-printers to create a personalized heart for each patient. This kind of artificial heart would be not a bridge to transplantation or, in a few short years, death, but one that would take a person through many years of life.

"My personal goal is to have an artificial heart where you don't have side effects and you don't have any heart problems anymore, so it would last pretty much forever," Cohrs says. Well, perhaps not forever: "An artificial heart valve last 15 years at the moment. Maybe something like that."

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