Researchers at Washington State University Spokane are now enrolling subjects in the first-ever study of the effects of a class of common antidepressant on sperm function.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has awarded $143,000 to fund the study on the effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) on sperm function, including their impact on the genetic material in the sperm (the DNA, or chromatin). The SSRIs are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants in the United States (examples include Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil). An estimated 4 million men of reproductive age in the U.S. alone take SSRIs each year.

The grant was awarded to Joanna Ellington, DVM, Ph.D., associate professor and director of biomedical development at the Health Research and Education Center, and Clarke St.Dennis, Ph.D., BCPP, clinical assistant professor of pharmacotherapy at WSU Spokane and psychopharmacology specialist at Sacred Heart Medical Center.

Ellington, a reproductive physiologist, states, “This grant highlights the unique opportunities for multidisciplinary medical advances at WSU Spokane. Although infertility doctors know that many of their male patients are being treated for depression, few reproductive physiologists would ever communicate across disciplines with a psychopharmacologist to begin to identify a relationship between depression medication and possible poor sperm function.”

Discussions between Ellington and St.Dennis highlighted that approximately half of all men taking SSRIs experience some sexual dysfunction, which may be related to hormonal changes in their bodies. Ellington also saw a marked elevation in the levels of sperm chromatin damage from one of her fertile sperm donors after he began SSRI therapy. This, coupled with data in animals that showed increased levels of sperm chromatin damage after similar hormonal changes, prompted the NIH to fund the study.

Ellington has worked with Dr. Don Evenson at South Dakota State University for over 7 years. Evenson invented the assay to evaluate sperm chromatin damage that will be used in the study. Sperm chromatin damage has been shown in many studies throughout the world to relate to failed fertilization, miscarriages, cancer and even childhood diseases.

Most other studies of reproductive health have focused on egg health, rather than sperm, and few if any studies have been performed on the effects of prescription medication on sperm chromatin. In general, FDA studies done before approval of a new medication address only limited assays of sperm counts and motility, not the health of the sperm#s DNA.