This paper reviews the discovery and history of the use of irreversible monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors (MAOIs) such as phenelzine, tranylcypromine and isocarboxazid, as well as the second generation selective and reversible MAOIs such as the MAO-A inhibitor, moclobemide and the MAO-B inhibitor, selegiline. Data for review were identified from a literature search of OvidSP Medline and PsycInfo performed in July 2012, using the subject terms and keywords of ‘monoamine oxidase inhibitors’, ‘major depression’, ‘depressive disorder’ and ‘depression (emotion)’. The search was limited to papers published in the English language and from 2007 onward only.
Irreversible MAOIs have the potential to treat the most challenging mood disorder patients including those with treatment-resistant depression, atypical depression and bipolar depression. Unfortunately, the use of irreversible MAOIs has been declining sharply due to lack of marketing and the excessive fears of clinicians. Moreover, few clinicians now have any experience, let alone comfort, in prescribing this class of antidepressants. The newer MAOIs are available as another option for the treatment of major depression but have not replaced the irreversible MAOIs for the specific sub-types of depression for which they are now recommended in most consensus guidelines and treatment algorithms.
The pharmacology, drug interactions and dietary recommendations associated with the use of MAOIs are reviewed. With the appropriate dietary restrictions and attention to potential drug interactions with serotonin and noradrenaline agents this class of drugs can be used effectively and safely. The MAOIs still represent an important element in our therapeutic armamentarium. Despite recommendations by opinion leaders and consensus guidelines for the use of MAOIs in specific sub-types of depression, the prescription rate of MAOIs is far less than expected and is decreasing. The “bad reputation” and the lack of industry support for this class of agents (especially the irreversible MAOIs) must be overcome in order to continue to provide a potentially useful treatment for a very vulnerable yet substantial sub-population of mood disorder patients.