Dysfunction in the monoamine systems of serotonin (5-HT), norepinephrine (NE) and dopamine (DA) may causally be related to major depressive disorder (MDD). Monoamine depletion studies investigate the direct effects of monoamines on mood. Acute tryptophan depletion (ATD) or para-chlorophenylalanine (PCPA) deplete 5-HT, acute phenylalanine/tyrosine depletion (APTD) or alpha-methyl-para-tyrosine (AMPT) deplete NE/DA. Available depletion studies found conflicting results in heterogeneous populations: healthy controls, patients with previous MDD in remission and patients suffering from MDD. The decrease in mood after 5-HT and NE/DA depletion in humans is reviewed and quantified. Systematic search of MEDLINE and EMBASE (1966-October 2006) and cross-references was carried out. Randomized studies applying ATD, PCPA, APTD or AMPT vs control depletion were included. Pooling of results by meta-analyses was stratified for studied population and design of the study (within or between subjects). Seventy-three ATD, 2 PCPA, 10 APTD and 8 AMPT studies were identified of which 45 ATD and 8 APTD studies could be meta-analyzed. 5-HT or NE/DA depletion did not decrease mood in healthy controls. 5-HT or NE/DA depletion slightly lowered mood in healthy controls with a family history of MDD. In drug-free patients with MDD in remission, a moderate mood decrease was found for ATD, without an effect of APTD. ATD induced relapse in patients with MDD in remission who used serotonergic antidepressants. In conclusion, monoamine depletion studies demonstrate decreased mood in subjects with a family history of MDD and in drug-free patients with MDD in remission, but do not decrease mood in healthy humans. Although depletion studies usefully investigate the etiological link of 5-HT and NE with MDD, they fail to demonstrate a causal relation. They presumably clarify a vulnerability trait to become depressed. Directions for further investigation of this vulnerability trait are proposed.