The neuropharmacology of serotonin and noradrenaline in depression

Int Clin Psychopharmacol. 2002 Jun;17 Suppl 1:S1-12. doi: 10.1097/00004850-200206001-00002.


Several classes of antidepressant drug exist, divided into three broad families, the monoamine reuptake inhibitors, the monoamine oxidase inhibitors and the monoamine receptor antagonists. All these drugs have a common pharmacological effect, to raise the synaptic concentrations of noradrenaline and serotonin. Although different drugs have different relative selectivity for noradrenaline and serotonin systems, these two neurotransmitter pathways work in parallel and in a coherent manner to produce the same final antidepressant response. The lag-time in the onset of action of antidepressants can be explained by the activation of inhibitory autoreceptors on serotonergic and noradrenergic neurones which initially attenuate the effects of antidepressants on synaptic transmitter levels. Over time, these autoreceptors desensitize, allowing the emergence of an overt antidepressant response. This theory has led to the proposition that antagonists at these autoreceptors such as pindolol may be useful adjuncts to antidepressant treatment, in order to hasten the appearance of a clinical response. Evidence for the clinical validity of this idea remains equivocal, however. The use of central monoamine depletion studies has demonstrated that it is elevated synaptic monoamine levels themselves, rather than some downstream postsynaptic changes in, for example, receptor sensitivity, that are responsible for the therapeutic effect of antidepressant drugs. Taken together, the data collected over the last 40 years have allowed the emergence of a unified monoamine hypothesis of antidepressant drug action.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenergic Uptake Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Adrenergic Uptake Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Animals
  • Antidepressive Agents / pharmacology*
  • Biogenic Monoamines / physiology
  • Depressive Disorder / drug therapy*
  • Depressive Disorder / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Nervous System / drug effects*
  • Norepinephrine / physiology*
  • Serotonin / physiology*
  • Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Synaptic Transmission / drug effects
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology


  • Adrenergic Uptake Inhibitors
  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Biogenic Monoamines
  • Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors
  • Serotonin
  • Norepinephrine