The serotonin (5-HT) hypothesis of depression dates from the 1960s. It originally postulated that a deficit in brain serotonin, corrected by antidepressant drugs, was the origin of the illness. Nowadays, it is generally accepted that recurring mood disorders are brain diseases resulting from the combination, to various degrees, of genetic and other biological as well as environmental factors, evolving through the lifespan. All areas of neuroscience, from genes to behaviour, molecules to mind, and experimental to clinical, are actively engaged in attempts at elucidating the pathophysiology of depression and the mechanisms underlying the efficacy of antidepressant treatments. This first of two special issues of Philosophical Transactions B seeks to provide an overview of current developments in the field, with an emphasis on cellular and molecular mechanisms, and how their unravelling opens new perspectives for future research.