Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors

Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2019:250:145-180. doi: 10.1007/164_2018_164.


This chapter covers antidepressants that fall into the class of serotonin (5-HT) and norepinephrine (NE) reuptake inhibitors. That is, they bind to the 5-HT and NE transporters with varying levels of potency and binding affinity ratios. Unlike the selective serotonin (5-HT) reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), most of these antidepressants have an ascending rather than a flat dose-response curve. The chapter provides a brief review of the chemistry, pharmacology, metabolism, safety and adverse effects, clinical use, and therapeutic indications of each antidepressant. Venlafaxine, a phenylethylamine, is a relatively weak 5-HT and weaker NE uptake inhibitor with a 30-fold difference in binding of the two transporters. Therefore, the drug has a clear dose progression, with low doses predominantly binding to the 5-HT transporter and more binding of the NE transporter as the dose ascends. Venlafaxine is metabolized to the active metabolite O-desmethylvenlafaxine (ODV; desvenlafaxine) by CYP2D6, and it therefore is subject to significant inter-individual variation in blood levels and response dependent on variations in CYP2D6 metabolism. The half-life of venlafaxine is short at about 5 h, with the ODV metabolite being 12 h. Both parent compound and metabolite have low protein binding and neither inhibit CYP enzymes. Therefore, both venlafaxine and desvenlafaxine are potential options if drug-drug interactions are a concern, although venlafaxine may be subject to drug-drug interactions with CYP2D6 inhibitors. At low doses, the adverse effect profile is similar to an SSRI with nausea, diarrhea, fatigue or somnolence, and sexual side effects, while venlafaxine at higher doses can produce mild increases in blood pressure, diaphoresis, tachycardia, tremors, and anxiety. A disadvantage of venlafaxine relative to the SSRIs is the potential for dose-dependent blood pressure elevation, most likely due to the NE reuptake inhibition caused by higher doses; however, this adverse effect is infrequently observed at doses below 225 mg per day. Venlafaxine also has a number of potential advantages over the SSRIs, including an ascending dose-antidepressant response curve, with possibly greater overall efficacy at higher doses. Venlafaxine is approved for MDD as well as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. Desvenlafaxine is the primary metabolite of venlafaxine, and it is also a relatively low-potency 5-HT and NE uptake inhibitor. Like venlafaxine it has a favorable drug-drug interaction profile. It is subject to CYP3A4 metabolism, and it is therefore vulnerable to enzyme inhibition or induction. However, the primary metabolic pathway is direct conjugation. It is approved in the narrow dose range of 50-100 mg per day. Duloxetine is a more potent 5-HT and NE reuptake inhibitor with a more balanced profile of binding at about 10:1 for 5HT and NE transporter binding. It is also a moderate inhibitor of CYP2D6, so that modest dose reductions and careful monitoring will be needed when prescribing duloxetine in combination with drugs that are preferentially metabolized by CYP2D6. The most common side effects identified in clinical trials are nausea, dry mouth, dizziness, constipation, insomnia, asthenia, and hypertension, consistent with its mechanisms of action. Clinical trials to date have demonstrated rates of response and remission in patients with major depression that are comparable to other marketed antidepressants reviewed in this book. In addition to approval for MDD, duloxetine is approved for diabetic peripheral neuropathic pain, fibromyalgia, and musculoskeletal pain. Milnacipran is marketed as an antidepressant in some countries, but not in the USA. It is approved in the USA and some other countries as a treatment for fibromyalgia. It has few pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic interactions with other drugs. Milnacipran has a half-life of about 10 h and therefore needs to be administered twice per day. It is metabolized by CYP3A4, but the major pathway for clearance is direct conjugation and renal elimination. As with other drugs in this class, dysuria is a common, troublesome, and dose-dependent adverse effect (occurring in up to 7% of patients). High-dose milnacipran has been reported to cause blood pressure and pulse elevations. Levomilnacipran is the levorotary enantiomer of milnacipran, and it is pharmacologically very similar to the racemic compound, although the side effects may be milder within the approved dosing range. As with other NE uptake inhibitors, it may increase blood pressure and pulse, although it appears to do so less than some other medications. All medications in the class can cause serotonin syndrome when combined with MAOIs.

Keywords: Desvenlafaxine; Duloxetine; Levomilnacipran; Milnacipran; Venlafaxine.

MeSH terms

  • Antidepressive Agents / chemistry
  • Antidepressive Agents / pharmacology*
  • Desvenlafaxine Succinate / chemistry*
  • Duloxetine Hydrochloride / chemistry
  • Duloxetine Hydrochloride / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Serotonin and Noradrenaline Reuptake Inhibitors* / pharmacology
  • Serotonin* / pharmacology


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Serotonin and Noradrenaline Reuptake Inhibitors
  • Serotonin
  • Duloxetine Hydrochloride
  • Desvenlafaxine Succinate