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Common Antidepressants May Be Less Effective At Higher Elevation, Study Says

Erik Neumann / KUER
Shami Kanekar

Our region ranks in the top ten for suicide. A new study from the University of Utah shows there may be a reason for that.

The study tested common antidepressants on rats at different altitudes. It included drugs like Prozac, Paxil, Lexapro and Zoloft. It’s a group of drugs called SSRIs that make up about 80 percent of prescribed antidepressants.

Rats were given the drugs in controlled test settings to simulate life at different elevations, from sea level up to 10,000 feet.

What the researchers found was the high-elevation rats had less serotonin, the natural chemical the brain produces to regulate mood. That caused the drugs Prozac, Paxil and Lexapro to be less effective.

Shami Kanekar is the lead author of the study.

"If you’re vulnerable generally, then you might be more predisposed to have depression up at altitude," Kanekar said. 

Overall, Kanekar said, the study doesn’t suggest that altitude is the sole cause of depression or suicide – there are still lots of other factors - but it 'shifts the balance' towards depression.

Zoloft is less reliant on serotonin levels in the body than the other three drugs. It was shown to still be effective at elevation. 

The study is published in the journal Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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