Serotonergic vulnerability and depression: assumptions, experimental evidence and implications

L.A.W. Jans*, W.J. Riedel, C.R. Markus, A. Blokland

*Corresponding author for this work

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In recent years, the term serotonergic vulnerability (SV) has been used in scientific literature, but so far it has not been explicitly defined. This review article attempts to elucidate the SV concept. SV can be defined as increased sensitivity to natural or experimental alterations of the serotonergic (5-HTergic) system. Several factors that may disrupt the 5-HTergic system and hence contribute to SV are discussed, including genetic factors, female gender, personality characteristics, several types of stress and drug use. It is explained that SV can be demonstrated by means of manipulations of the 5-HTergic system, such as 5-HT challenges or acute tryptophan depletion (ATD). Results of 5-HT challenge studies and ATD studies are discussed in terms of their implications for the concept of SV. A model is proposed in which a combination of various factors that may compromise 5-HT functioning in one person can result in depression or other 5-HT-related pathology. By manipulating 5-HT levels, in particular with ATD, vulnerable subjects may be identified before pathology initiates, providing the opportunity to take preventive action. Although it is not likely that this model applies to all cases of depression, or is able to identify all vulnerable subjects, the strength of the model is that it may enable identification of vulnerable subjects before the 5-HT related pathology occurs.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)522-543
JournalMolecular Psychiatry
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2007

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