A team of scientists in Austria has proof that antidepressant medication and not depression itself, can lead to reductions in empathy. Their findings of “Antidepressant treatment, not depression, leads to reductions in behavioral and neural responses to pain empathy“ were published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
Study author Markus Rütgen of the University of Vienna explained, “Although previous research reported reduced empathy in acute depression, we realized that these previous studies investigated groups of patients who were already undergoing antidepressant treatment. As it has been shown that antidepressants such as serotonergic reuptake inhibitors influence emotional processing, we assumed that the previously reported lowered empathy could be related to the treatment, not to depression itself. Our study design allowed us to clearly disentangle effects of an acute episode of depression and antidepressants on empathy.”
The researchers engaged 29 patients with acute depression and studied their empathic responses to the pain of others on two occasions.
Before receiving any medication, participants went through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while watching videos of people enduring painful medical procedures. The same empathy tests were repeated after administering psychopharmacological treatment with antidepressants mostly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors for three months. The recorded empathic responses were compared to a control group of 35 non-depressed contributors.
Before any treatment, the researchers observed no differences between the control group and the depressed participants. However, after treatment, depressed participants exhibited a lower level of empathy and their brain activation was also reduced in areas previously associated with empathy.
Moreover, reductions in self-reported empathy were connected with reductions in depression symptom severity.
Rütgen told PsyPost, “While empathy during an acute episode was found to be on normal levels, antidepressant treatment seemed to downregulate empathic responses to the pain of others. What we found appears to be another side effect of antidepressants that had not been known so far. Knowing about such side effects is important, as it helps people making informed decisions and choose between different treatment options.”
Like all research, even the current study has some limitations.
Rütgen added, “As this was the first longitudinal study on the topic, more research is needed to confirm our findings and possibly extend them to other forms of antidepressant treatment. The persistence of the effects could not be tested within the present study. Future studies should also investigate the impact of antidepressants on empathy for positive emotions, which was not tested in our study”.