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Personality in a Pill!?!???

Bumped into an interesting article reviewing a study that concluded a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) generated a change in personality. The article was in the December edition of Archives of General Psychiatry, and the study was conducted at Northwestern University under the supervision of Tony Z. Tang, Ph.D.

Before we get down to biz, however, I want to reference a post I wrote some time back, Panic Attacks, Temperament, and Uncle Hans: A Matter of Engineering? The post discussed the work of personality theorist, Hans Eysenck. In his PEN model of temperament Eysenck emphasized the “superfactors” neuroticicsm, extraversion, and psychoticism.

Well, it’s been accepted that two of these, neuroticism (leaning toward icky emotions and emotional instability) and extraversion (leaning toward outgoing behavior, social dominance, and expression of positive emotions) have been tied to depression risk. And since neuroticism and extraversion have been associated with the neurotransmitter, serotonin, they’re obviously going to be impacted by an SSRI.

Tang and the gang (couldn’t resist) studied adult sufferers of major depressive disorder. A portion of the group participated in cognitive therapy, another was administered the SSRI, paroxetine (Paxil), and the remainder of the group was given a placebo. Their personality and depressive symptoms were assessed before, during, and after their assigned treatment.

The results were interesting. First of all, all of the subjects showed an improvement in their depressive symptoms. However, the subjects who took paroxetine experienced a significantly greater decrease in neuroticism and an increase in extraversion.

Now, let me explain one more thing before we get to the heart of the research. In studying personality, traits and states (nice rhyme) are considered. A trait tends to be more of a permanent characteristic and a state is a temporary change in one’s personality, generally a reaction.

Well, it seems the findings of the study go against the grain of what’s known as the state effect hypothesis. Adhering to this hypothesis would suggest that any personality changes induced by paroxetine could only have occurred as a result of it simply alleviating depressive symptoms. But the study suggests paroxetine could have generated a personality change; and the subsequent decrease in neuroticism led to the decrease in depressive symptoms.

Hmmm…interesting stuff, huh?

Our Take Away…

  • In spite of the fact that the SSRIs are so prevalent traces of them can be found in drinking water supplies, science still has no clue as to why they work.
  • If it’s true paroxetine is generating personality changes, as opposed to relieving depressive (and anxious) symptoms, isn’t that a little bit scary?
  • What came first, the state or the trait?
  • If an SSRI can generate a positive personality change, could it also lead to a troublesome change?


We’d like you to comment on what the study suggests to you. If you’re taking an SSRI, what do you think?