Anti-depressants more effective than placebos in treating acute depression

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DepressionA major study comparing 21 commonly used antidepressants concludes that all are more effective than placebo for the short-term treatment of acute depression in adults, with effectiveness ranging from small to moderate for different drugs.

The international study is a network meta-analysis of 522 double-blind, randomised controlled trials comprising a total of 116477 participants. The study includes the largest amount of unpublished data to date, and all the data from the study have been made freely available online.

An estimated 350m have depression worldwide – the economic burden in the US alone has been estimated to be more than $210bn. Pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments are available but because of inadequate resources, antidepressants are used more frequently than psychological interventions. However, there is considerable debate about their effectiveness.

As part of the study, the authors identified all double-blind, randomised controlled trials (RCTs) comparing antidepressants with placebo, or with another antidepressants (head-to-head trials) for the acute treatment (over 8 weeks) of major depression in adults aged 18 years or more. The authors then contacted pharmaceutical companies, original study authors, and regulatory agencies to supplement incomplete reports of the original papers, or provide data for unpublished studies.

The primary outcomes were efficacy (number of patients who responded to treatment – who had a reduction in depressive symptoms of 50% or more on a validated rating scale over 8 weeks) and acceptability (proportion of patients who withdrew from the study for any reason by week 8).

Overall, 522 double-blind RCTs done between 1979 and 2016 comparing 21 commonly used antidepressants or placebo were included in the meta-analysis, the largest ever in psychiatry. A total of 87052 participants had been randomly assigned to receive a drug, and 29425 to receive placebo. The majority of patients had moderate-to-severe depression.

All 21 antidepressants were more effective than placebo, and only one drug (clomipramine) less acceptable than placebo. Some antidepressants were more effective than others, with agomelatine, amitriptyline, escitalopram, mirtazapine, paroxetine, venlafaxine, and vortioxetine proving most effective, and fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, reboxetine, and trazodone being the least effective. The majority of the most effective antidepressants are now off patent and available in generic form.

Antidepressants also differed in terms of acceptability, with agomelatine, citalopram, escitalopram, fluoxetine, sertraline, and vortioxetine proving most tolerable, and amitriptyline, clomipramine, duloxetine, fluvoxamine, reboxetine, trazodone, and venlafaxine being the least tolerable.

The authors note that the data included in the meta-analysis covers 8-weeks of treatment, so may not necessarily apply to longer term antidepressant use. The differences in efficacy and acceptability between different antidepressants were smaller when data from placebo-controlled trials were also considered.

In order to ensure that the trials included in the meta-analysis were comparable, the authors excluded studies with patients who also had bipolar depression, symptoms of psychosis or treatment resistant depression, meaning that the findings may not apply to these patients.

“Our study brings together the best available evidence to inform and guide doctors and patients in their treatment decisions,” said Dr Andrea Cipriani of Oxford University’s department of psychiatry. “We found that the most commonly used antidepressants are more effective than placebo, with some more effective than others. Our findings are relevant for adults experiencing a first or second episode of depression – the typical population seen in general practice.

“Antidepressants can be an effective tool to treat major depression, but this does not necessarily mean that antidepressants should always be the first line of treatment. Medication should always be considered alongside other options, such as psychological therapies, where these are available. Patients should be aware of the potential benefits from antidepressants and always speak to the doctors about the most suitable treatment for them individually.”

409 (78%) of 522 trials were funded by pharmaceutical companies, and the authors retrieved unpublished information for 274 (52%) of the trials included in the meta-analysis. Overall, 46 (9%) trials were rated as high risk of bias, 380 (78%) as moderate, and 96 (18%) as low. The design of the network meta-analysis and inclusion of unpublished data is intended to reduce the impact of individual study bias as much as possible. Although this study included a significant amount of unpublished data, a certain amount could still not be retrieved.

The authors note that they did not have access to individual-level data so were only able to analyse group differences. For instance, they could not look at the effectiveness or acceptability of antidepressants in relation to age, sex, severity of symptoms, duration of illness or other individual-level characteristics.

The findings from this study contrast with a similar analysis in children and adolescents, which concluded that fluoxetine was probably the only antidepressant that might reduce depressive symptoms. The authors note that the difference may be because depression in young people is the result of different mechanisms or causes, and note that because of the smaller number of studies in young people there is great uncertainty around the risks and benefits of using any antidepressants for the treatment of depression in children and adolescents.

Abstract
Background: Major depressive disorder is one of the most common, burdensome, and costly psychiatric disorders worldwide in adults. Pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments are available; however, because of inadequate resources, antidepressants are used more frequently than psychological interventions. Prescription of these agents should be informed by the best available evidence. Therefore, we aimed to update and expand our previous work to compare and rank antidepressants for the acute treatment of adults with unipolar major depressive disorder.
Methods: We did a systematic review and network meta-analysis. We searched Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, CINAHL, Embase, LILACS database, MEDLINE, MEDLINE In-Process, PsycINFO, the websites of regulatory agencies, and international registers for published and unpublished, double-blind, randomised controlled trials from their inception to Jan 8, 2016. We included placebo-controlled and head-to-head trials of 21 antidepressants used for the acute treatment of adults (≥18 years old and of both sexes) with major depressive disorder diagnosed according to standard operationalised criteria. We excluded quasi-randomised trials and trials that were incomplete or included 20% or more of participants with bipolar disorder, psychotic depression, or treatment-resistant depression; or patients with a serious concomitant medical illness. We extracted data following a predefined hierarchy. In network meta-analysis, we used group-level data. We assessed the studies’ risk of bias in accordance to the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions, and certainty of evidence using the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation framework. Primary outcomes were efficacy (response rate) and acceptability (treatment discontinuations due to any cause). We estimated summary odds ratios (ORs) using pairwise and network meta-analysis with random effects. This study is registered with PROSPERO, number CRD42012002291.
Findings: We identified 28 552 citations and of these included 522 trials comprising 116 477 participants. In terms of efficacy, all antidepressants were more effective than placebo, with ORs ranging between 2·13 (95% credible interval [CrI] 1·89–2·41) for amitriptyline and 1·37 (1·16–1·63) for reboxetine. For acceptability, only agomelatine (OR 0·84, 95% CrI 0·72–0·97) and fluoxetine (0·88, 0·80–0·96) were associated with fewer dropouts than placebo, whereas clomipramine was worse than placebo (1·30, 1·01–1·68). When all trials were considered, differences in ORs between antidepressants ranged from 1·15 to 1·55 for efficacy and from 0·64 to 0·83 for acceptability, with wide CrIs on most of the comparative analyses. In head-to-head studies, agomelatine, amitriptyline, escitalopram, mirtazapine, paroxetine, venlafaxine, and vortioxetine were more effective than other antidepressants (range of ORs 1·19–1·96), whereas fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, reboxetine, and trazodone were the least efficacious drugs (0·51–0·84). For acceptability, agomelatine, citalopram, escitalopram, fluoxetine, sertraline, and vortioxetine were more tolerable than other antidepressants (range of ORs 0·43–0·77), whereas amitriptyline, clomipramine, duloxetine, fluvoxamine, reboxetine, trazodone, and venlafaxine had the highest dropout rates (1·30–2·32). 46 (9%) of 522 trials were rated as high risk of bias, 380 (73%) trials as moderate, and 96 (18%) as low; and the certainty of evidence was moderate to very low.
Interpretation: All antidepressants were more efficacious than placebo in adults with major depressive disorder. Smaller differences between active drugs were found when placebo-controlled trials were included in the analysis, whereas there was more variability in efficacy and acceptability in head-to-head trials. These results should serve evidence-based practice and inform patients, physicians, guideline developers, and policy makers on the relative merits of the different antidepressants.

Authors
Andrea Cipriani, Toshi A Furukawa, Georgia Salanti, Anna Chaimani, Lauren Z Atkinson, Yusuke Ogawa, Stefan Leucht, Henricus G Ruhe, Erick H Turner, Julian P T Higgins, Matthias Egger, Nozomi Takeshima, Yu Hayasaka, Hissei Imai, Kiyomi Shinohara, Aran Tajika, John PA Ioannidis, John R Geddes

Oxford University material
The Lancet article summary


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