Wednesday, September 06, 1995

Serotonin

LIKE cholesterol in the Seventies, serotonin has become the essential chemical (word) to drop in the Nineties. The word is key, not just in the live for ever and be happy too publishing industry, via the anti depressant, Prozac, but also in the tabloid rave vicar sex romp market, via Ecstasy. Both drugs, it turns out, work by messing about with the same brain chemical, serotonin.

Interest in the substance hardly seems surprising. Serotonin appears to be involved in the control of appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature, mood, behaviour, personality (there's a biggy), cardiovascular function, depression, muscle contraction, endocrine regulation, and dancing style. No great shock then that the market for serotoninrelated drugs in the 1990s is expected to top 10 billion dollars - and that is from chemist shops, rather than night club sales.

Serotonin was first isolated in 1948, from blood, which is why its name suggests that it was found in blood serum and affected the tone of blood vessels. At first, when most serotonin was found to be in the digestive tract, it received little media attention. Later, however, when American psychopharmacologists began to investigate the relationship between serotonin and the use of, the hallucinogenic drugs, the word's social standing soared.

It was the arrival on the scene of another chemical fluoxetine, that brought serotonin into its current frantic vogue. Drug manufacturer Eli Lilly, began marketing its brand of the antidepressant chemical, Prozac in 1987, but it was not until several years later that it achieved its image as the mental health cure all. In his 1993 book, Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer, used expressions like "cosmetic psycho pharmacology" and "better than well" to expound a theory about life that suggested, roughly, that you don't have to be broken to get fixed - pretty much the hypothesis behind Ecstasy use.

Those writing about Ecstasy in the media often feel obliged to drop a little science into the mix, and reach for the serotonin to this end. It is, of course, unnecessary to go into the vexed questions of the relationship between serotonin levels and an appreciation of the music of Sven Vath. Merely slipping the word into a report is enough, quickly fulfilling the scientific research requirement, allowing the writer to get back to the juicy bits.

As the vogue takes hold, simple unhappiness has been banished. When Stephen Fry went AWOL last spring, for example, the London Times was quick to brand the culprit, explaining that the comedian's problem was "biochemical and related to serotonin levels". It can only be a short time until the present messy range of expressions meaning unhappy is entirely replaced by a scrupulously accurate and all encompassing term that has appeared in the United States. You're not sad, you see, you're "seriously serotonin deprived". Here, take one of these.

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