As friends, family, and investigators searched for a possible motive in Tuesday's slaying of a Massachusetts General Hospital cardiologist, an antipsychiatry ''watchdog group'' said that Colleen Mitchell's psychiatric medication had spurred her to shoot Dr. Brian McGovern and then turn the gun on herself.
Members of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, which is affiliated with the Church of Scientology, planned a protest at the hospital today against the use of antidepressants such as Zoloft, which Mitchell had apparently been taking.
There is a long history of allegations that selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors (a tremendously popular category of antidepressants that includes Prozac and Paxil) drive people to violence or suicide. In 2001, a Wyoming jury made a $6.4 million judgment against GlaxoSmithKline, which makes Paxil, after an oil field worker taking the drug shot his wife, daughter, and granddaughter and then committed suicide. The company appealed the decision and ultimately settled out of court. The following year, the Food and Drug Administration filed a brief supporting the drug maker's position.
A Harvard Medical School psychiatrist said yesterday that it is ''preposterous'' to assign blame for a crime to an antidepressant like Zoloft. The drugs increase buildup of a naturally occurring chemical, seratonin, around nerve endings in the brain. Although ''edgy'' people may sometimes see an exaggeration of that quality, he said, the effects are transient.
''These medicines are not that powerful, frankly, for good or for ill,'' said Dr. J. Alexander Bodkin, chief of the Clinical Psychopharmacology Research Program at McLean Hospital. ''It is not a cause for misbehavior, not an excuse for misbehavior, and it doesn't help us understand the misbehavior.''
But a Utah activist who has testified as an expert witness against drug manufacturers said a high level of seratonin in the brain can cause people to ''act out their nightmares,'' leading them to commit violent crimes. Ann Blake Tracy, director of the International Coalition for Drug Awareness, said she had become increasingly suspicious of SSRI antidepressants as she watched more and more friends in Utah begin taking them, ''doing violent things completely out of character for them.''
The debate over the drugs has emerged in Boston several times since 1990, when a McLean researcher, Dr. Martin Teicher, published a study showing that 3.5 percent of patients taking Prozac attempt or commit suicide due to severe agitation. Eight years later, Teicher helped to patent a reformulation of the drug, whose application states that the new version reduces side effects such as ''intense, violent suicidal thoughts.''