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Recent research suggests that common antidepressant medications may impair a form of learning.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a popular class of antidepressant used to treat depression and anxiety disorders. Nevertheless, the effect these drugs have on memory and learning is poorly understood.
Previously, this research team demonstrated that long-term use of SSRIs impairs fear conditioning in laboratory rats. Dr. Nesha Burghardt and her colleagues have now tested the effects of antidepressant treatment on extinction learning in rats using auditory fear conditioning.
Extinction learning is the ability to learn that a conditioned stimulus no longer predicts an aversive event. It is a mode of fear learning that involves the amygdala, a region of the brain important for processing memory and emotion. What they found was that long-term – not short-term – SSRI treatment impairs extinction learning.
Researchers went on to suggest a mechanism for this effect on fear learning. The antidepressants decreased the levels of one of the subunits of a receptor in the amygdala. That particular receptor is critically involved in fear-related learning. These reductions are believed to contribute to the effects.
“The impairment may have important consequences clinically, since extinction-based exposure therapy is often used to treat anxiety disorders and antidepressants are often administered simultaneously,” explained Burghardt. “Based on our work, medication-induced impairments in extinction learning may actually disrupt the beneficial effects of exposure-therapy.”
“We know that antidepressants play important roles in the treatment of depression and anxiety disorders,” said Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry, the journal in which the report was published. “However, it is important to understand the limitations of these medications so that we can improve the effectiveness of the treatment for these disorders.”
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