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December 11th, 2009
Taking Antidepressants May Increase Extroversion

Patients taking antidepressants may not only feel less depressed, but may also become more extraverted and less neurotic, a new study suggests.

Research in the past has determined that extraversion, usually associated with positive emotions, can protect against negative feelings and sadness. On the other hand, neuroticism and the feelings of negative emotions and emotional instability often contribute to depression.

This increase in extraversion may help avoid a relapse of depression, said Tony Tang, lead study author and a professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Evanstron, Illinois.

“People’s personalities actually do change and quite substantially when they go through these antidepressant treatments,” said Tang. “In the past, we tended to dismiss the personality changes as a side effect or something not very important. But our study suggests it’s actually very important to treatment outcomes.”

Both extraversion and neuroticism are connected to the serotonin system which helps regulate mood, sleep and appetite.

For the study, participants were given Paxil, a SSRI drug similar to Prozac, Zoloft and Celexa. Only Paxil was tested, but the results would likely be similar for all medications. Participants were divided into three groups from 240 adults with major depressive disorders. Of this group, 120 received paroxetine, 60 had cognitive therapy and 60 took a placebo. Individual personalities and depressive symptoms were researched before and after the study.

All three groups experienced some improvement in their depression. However, patients taking paxil felt less neurotic and more extraverted compared to the therapy and placebo groups.

The research revealed that the drug wasn’t a miracle cure, levels of extraversion and neuroticism were still barely in a normal range, but they were fairly better than before.

“Our findings seem to suggest one of the very good predictors for how well you’ll do over the long term is how much your personality changes in response to the medication,” Tang said. “For example, how much your neuroticism improved predicted how likely you were to relapse in a year after the treatment.”

Paxil, commonly prescribed for anxiety disorders, is not an especially effective antidepressant drug. “In this sample, it barely beat the placebo” said Carroll, past chairman of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) advisory committee for psychiatric drugs.

“Paroxetine wouldn’t be anybody’s number one choice for depression,” said Carroll. “But it just might make sense that improving certain personality dimensions helps the patient’s resilience against future relapse.”

If a patient is deciding whether to take an SSRI, they must be aware of the possible side effects. Many people taking them in the past have had problems with blunted emotions, headaches, sleeping problems, gastrointestinal upset and sexual problems.

“This business about the drugs affecting personality is not all necessarily good,” Carroll said.

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