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Cessation of therapy with a selective serotonin (5-HT) reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) is often associated with an early onset and disabling discontinuation syndrome, the mechanism of which is surprisingly little investigated. Here we determined the effect on 5-HT neurochemistry of discontinuation from the SSRI paroxetine. Paroxetine was administered repeatedly to mice (once daily, 12 days versus saline controls) and then either continued or discontinued for up to 5 days. Whereas brain tissue levels of 5-HT and/or its metabolite 5-HIAA tended to decrease during continuous paroxetine, levels increased above controls after discontinuation, notably in hippocampus. In microdialysis experiments continuous paroxetine elevated hippocampal extracellular 5-HT and this effect fell to saline control levels on discontinuation. However, depolarisation (high potassium)-evoked 5-HT release was reduced by continuous paroxetine but increased above controls post-discontinuation. Extracellular hippocampal 5-HIAA also decreased during continuous paroxetine and increased above controls post-discontinuation. Next, immunohistochemistry experiments found that paroxetine discontinuation increased c-Fos expression in midbrain 5-HT (TPH2 positive) neurons, adding further evidence for a hyperexcitable 5-HT system. The latter effect was recapitulated by 5-HT1A receptor antagonist administration although gene expression analysis could not confirm altered expression of 5-HT1A autoreceptors following paroxetine discontinuation. Finally, in behavioural experiments paroxetine discontinuation increased anxiety-like behaviour, which partially correlated in time with the measures of increased 5-HT function. In summary, this study reports evidence that, across a range of experiments, SSRI discontinuation triggers a rebound activation of 5-HT neurons. This effect is reminiscent of neural changes associated with various psychotropic drug withdrawal states, suggesting a common unifying mechanism.

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