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Neuroscience: Clare Hall members explain emotional ‘blunting’ caused by common antidepressants

23 January 2023 Fellows

A team of scientists including Professor Barbara Sahakian, a Fellow of Clare Hall, have worked out why common antidepressants cause around half of users to feel emotionally ‘blunted’. In a Neuropsychopharmacology study published today, they show that the drugs affect reinforcement learning, an important behavioural process that allows us to learn from our environment.

Professor Sahakian, senior author, from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘Emotional blunting is a common side effect of SSRI antidepressants. In a way, this may be in part how they work – they take away some of the emotional pain that people who experience depression feel, but, unfortunately, it seems that they also take away some of the enjoyment. From our study, we can now see that this is because they become less sensitive to rewards, which provide important feedback.’

Dr Christelle Langley, joint first author and Affiliated Postdoctoral Member of Clare Hall, also from the Department of Psychiatry, added: ‘Our findings provide important evidence for the role of serotonin in reinforcement learning. We are following this work up with a study examining neuroimaging data to understand how escitalopram affects the brain during reward learning.’

Read full coverage by the University of Cambridge at