Thursday, November 20, 2014

suicide epidemic in utah and one neuroscientist thinks he knows why

mic |  Renshaw believes that oxygen-poor air tampers with brain chemistry, leading to a drop in serotonin and an uptick in dopamine. Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that relay signals between neurons and other cells. 

Serotonin, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, helps stabilize emotions. Antidepressants — SSRIs, (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), which include Prozac and Lexapro — work by blocking the transport of serotonin back to the neurons, thereby increasing its supply in the brain.

Dopamine, an excitatory neurotransmitter, plays a vital role in our ability to focus. Too little dopamine can make us scatterbrained, whereas a dopamine increase causes hyper-concentration and feelings of euphoria. Caffeine, prescription drugs, including some ADD/ADHD medications, and illegal stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine, work by increasing the availability of dopamine in our brains.

So why do some people enjoy the benefits of the Utah air's impact on increased dopamine levels, which should make us happier, and some fall victim to the impact on decreased levels of serotonin, which would make us more depressed?

The answer lies in how changes in neurotransmitter levels affect our individual brain chemistry.
As Renshaw's theory goes, serotonin deficiency exacerbates symptoms of pre-existing anxiety and depression, increasing the likelihood of becoming suicidal (mental illness is a factor in about 90% of suicides). People with an existing mood disorder, or a predisposition to mental illness, would be more sensitive to the effects of waning serotonin levels.

Women, who naturally have half as much serotonin as men, Renshaw said, are more likely to develop a mood disorder as a result of living in the mountains (about 24% of middle-aged women in Utah take an SSRI — double the national rate. The various anecdotes about anxious Utah women, Renshaw believes, bolster his theory).


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