Depression is one of the most common types of mental illness in the United States. Millions of people are affected annually, and about seven percent of adults experience at least one depressive episode each year.
People with depression may seek treatment in the form of antidepressant medications, which can help balance brain chemistry issues that are contributing to depression. Antidepressants are an important and effective treatment option for many people, but they are also associated with a number of troublesome side effects, including cognitive effects on the brain.
One of the most common questions patients ask when considering antidepressant treatment is “do antidepressants cause memory loss?”
Do antidepressants cause memory loss?
Some antidepressant medications have been found to contribute to memory loss. Several studies have been conducted which show that memory loss is a side effect of treatment with some types of antidepressant medications.
The medications can cause short-term memory loss in some patients; this cognitive decline typically occurs within the first eight weeks of treatment. In addition to causing memory loss, use of antidepressant medications is also associated with a significantly increased risk of dementia.
How do antidepressants cause memory loss?
Antidepressants counteract depression in a variety of ways, including by blocking the chemical activity of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. Serotonin and norepinephrine are two important neurotransmitters in the brain that play a role in both memory and mood. Serotonin impacts communication between neurons in the brain that are associated with memory, specifically in the hippocampus.
Without an adequate level of serotonin and activity, memory retention becomes impaired. The disruption of serotonin and norepinephrine activity can also create difficulty concentrating, which means that some people may not be able to focus enough to retain information and develop new memories.
It’s important to note that antidepressants have not been tied to long-term memory loss; so far, the research indicates that the formation of new short-term memories is more likely to be affected.
What kinds of antidepressants cause memory loss?
There are five main categories of antidepressants, each of which acts on the brain in a slightly different way. The five main classes of antidepressant medications include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
- Tricyclic antidepressants
- Atypical antidepressants
Of these categories, studies have found that tricyclic antidepressants and SSRIs can cause memory loss. Taking tricyclic antidepressants has been found to cause memory impairment in 35 percent of adults taking the medication, while 54 percent of patients using the medication report difficulty concentrating. Tricyclic antidepressants block the action of serotonin and norepinephrine, which is why they are associated with memory loss.
Use of SSRIs has also been linked to memory impairment and memory loss. A study conducted in 2016 found that people who were treated with SSRIs for depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder and those who were new to treatment with SSRIs were at risk of experiencing a gradual decline in their memory function during the first eight weeks of treatment. There was found to be no correlation between memory loss and the patient’s age, gender, or education level, so all individuals taking SSRIs were considered to be at equal risk of developing memory loss.
Memory loss has not been associated with use of SNRIs, MAOIs, or atypical antidepressants. However, further studies are needed in order to determine if these categories of antidepressants can impact memory in a similar way.
How can patients avoid memory loss when taking antidepressants?
Patients who need to take antidepressants to improve their depression symptoms and overall mental health have a few options when it comes to avoiding memory loss while taking their medication.
As noted above, two classes of antidepressants, tricyclic antidepressants and SSRIs, have been shown to have the potential to cause memory loss. Atypical antidepressants, SNRIs, and MAOIs may provide an alternative for patients with concerns about cognitive decline. Lowering your dose may also help to avoid or minimize memory loss. Nutritional supplements may also help patients prevent cognitive decline and memory loss by supporting healthy brain function.