SSRI anti-depressants can lead to emotional blunting - Effect seen in healthy subjects after 3 weeks of medication

By: Tom Cloyd - 2 min. read (Published: 2023-01-28; reviewed: 2023-01-28:1853 Pacific Time (USA))

Previous studies have indicated that emotional blunting was present with SSRI use, but these effects could as well be due to the presence of depression. This new study used non-depressed subjects and was experimental, not correlational. SSRIs appeared to cause emotional blunting.

Reports from large populations taking SSRI anti-depressants have found emotional blunting, and additional studies have suggested that about 50% of individuals experience (by self-report) a reduction in emotional responses to negative and positive stimuli (i.e., emotional blunting) when SSRI anti-depressants are involved. But these are correlational studies and from them a causal effect may not be inferred.

Newly published research, using a double-blind, placebo-controlled semi-randomised experimental design, examined possible SSRI anti-depressant effect on emotional response when used an that allowed observation ofdepression was not a confounding (co-existing and therefore confusing) variable.

The drug used was escitalopram (see here for information about this drug), sold under the brand names Lexapro and Cipralex.

Subjects (N=66), after an extended period of medication with escitalopram or a placebo, were given a learning task which involved reinforcement: their attempts to accomplish a learning task were met with a calculated negative or positive response and the effect of this response on learning was observed.

“The novel and important finding was that escitalopram reduced reinforcement sensitivity compared to placebo.” In other words, subjects medicated with the SSRI anti-depressants were less responsive to the results of their learning efforts than were those subjects who received a placebo. This appears to indicate an emotional-blunting effect of the SSRI medication alone, independent of any other reasons for emotional blunting in individuals.

Cambridge, U. of. (2023, January 22). Common Antidepressants Cause Emotional “Blunting” – Scientists Finally Figured Out Why. SciTechDaily.

Devlin, H., & correspondent, H. D. S. (2023, January 23). Antidepressants can cause ‘emotional blunting’, study shows. The Guardian.

Langley, C., Armand, S., Luo, Q., Savulich, G., Segerberg, T., Søndergaard, A., Pedersen, E. B., Svart, N., Overgaard-Hansen, O., Johansen, A., Borgsted, C., Cardinal, R. N., Robbins, T. W., Stenbæk, D. S., Knudsen, G. M., & Sahakian, B. J. (2023). Chronic escitalopram in healthy volunteers has specific effects on reinforcement sensitivity: A double-blind, placebo-controlled semi-randomised study. Neuropsychopharmacology, 1–7.


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