Neuroplasticity and major depression, the role of modern antidepressant drugs

World J Psychiatry. 2012 Jun 22;2(3):49-57. doi: 10.5498/wjp.v2.i3.49.


The pathophysiology of depression has been traditionally attributed to a chemical imbalance and critical interactions between genetic and environmental risk factors, and antidepressant drugs suggested to act predominantly amplifying monoaminergic neurotransmission. This conceptualization may be currently considered reductive. The current literature about the pathophysiological mechanisms underlying depression, stress-related disorders and antidepressant treatment was examined. In order to provide a critical overview about neuroplasticity, depression and antidepressant drugs, a detailed Pubmed/Medline, Scopus, PsycLit, and PsycInfo search to identify all papers and book chapters during the period between 1980 and 2011 was performed. Pathological stress and depression determine relevant brain changes such as loss of dendritic spines and synapses, dendritic atrophy as well as reduction of glial cells (both in number and size) in specific areas such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. An increased dendritic arborisation and synaptogenesis may instead be observed in the amygdala as a consequence of depression and stress-related disorders. While hippocampal and prefrontal functioning was impaired, amygdala functioning was abnormally amplified. Most of molecular abnormalities and biological changes of aberrant neuroplasticity may be explained by the action of glutamate. Antidepressant treatment is associated with neurogenesis, gliogenesis, dendritic arborisation, new synapse formation and cell survival both in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Antidepressants (ADs) induce neuroplasticity mechanisms reversing the pathological effects of depression and stress-related disorders. The neuroplasticity hypothesis may explain the therapeutic and prophylactic action of ADs representing a new innovative approach to the pathophysiology of depression and stress-related disorders.

Keywords: Antidepressants; Depression; Neurogenesis; Neuroplasticity; Stress-related changes.

Publication types

  • Review