The largest non-pharma antidepressant trial ever conducted just confirmed what we already knew: scientists love naming things after pandas.
We already had PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcus) and PANDA (Proton ANnhilator At DArmstadt). But the latest in this pandemic of panda pandering is the PANDA (Prescribing ANtiDepressants Appropriately) Study. A group of British scientists followed 655 complicated patients who received either placebo or the antidepressant sertraline (Zoloft®).
The PANDA trial was unique in two ways. First, as mentioned, it was the largest ever trial for a single antidepressant not funded by a pharmaceutical company. Second, it was designed to mimic “the real world” as closely as possible. In most antidepressant trials, researchers wait to gather the perfect patients: people who definitely have depression and definitely don’t have anything else. Then they get top psychiatrists to carefully evaluate each patient, monitor the way they take the medication, and exhaustively test every aspect of their progress with complicated questionnaires. PANDA looked for normal people going to their GP’s (US English: PCP’s) office, with all of the mishmash of problems and comorbidities that implies.
Measuring real-world efficacy is especially important for antidepressant research because past studies have failed to match up with common sense. Most studies show antidepressants having “clinically insignificant” effects on depression; that is, although scientists can find a statistical difference between treatment and placebo groups, it seems too small to matter. But in the real world, most doctors find antidepressants very useful, and many patients credit them for impressive recoveries. Maybe a big real-world study would help bridge the gap between study vs. real-world results.
The study used an interesting selection criteria – you were allowed in if you and your doctor reported “uncertainty…about the possible benefit of an antidepressant”. That is, people who definitely didn’t need antidepressants were sent home without an antidepressant, people who definitely did need antidepressants got the antidepressant, and people on the borderline made it into the study. This is very different from the usual pharma company method of using the people who desperately need antidepressants the most in order to inflate success rates. And it’s more relevant to clinical practice – part of what it means for studies to guide our clinical practice is to tell us what to do in cases where we’re otherwise not sure. And unlike most studies, which use strict diagnostic criteria, this study just used a perception of needing help – not even necessarily for depression, some of these patients were anxious or had other issues. Again, more relevant for clinical practice, where the borders between depression, anxiety, etc aren’t always that clear.
They ended up with 655 people, ages 18-74, from Bristol, Liverpool, London, and York. They followed up on how they were doing at 2, 6, and 12 weeks after they started medication. As usual, they scored patients on a bunch of different psychiatric tests.
In the end, PANDA confirmed what we already know: it is really hard to measure antidepressant outcomes, and all the endpoints conflict with each other.
I am going to be much nicer to you than the authors of the original paper were to their readers, and give you a convenient table with all of the results converted to effect sizes. All values are positive, meaning the antidepressant group beat the placebo group. I calculated some of this by hand, so it may be wrong.
PHQ-9 is a common depression test. BDI is another common depression test. GAD-7 is an anxiety test. SF-12 is a vague test of how mentally healthy you’re feeling. Remission indicates percent of patients whose test scores have improved enough that they qualify as “no longer depressed”. General improvement was just asking patients if they felt any better.
I like this study because it examines some of the mystery of why antidepressants do much worse in clinical trials than according to anecdotal doctor and patient intuitions. One possibility has always been that we’re measuring these things wrong. This study goes to exactly the kind of naturalistic setting where people report good results, and measures things a bunch of different ways to see what happens.
The results are broadly consistent with previous studies. Usually people think of effect sizes less than 0.2 as miniscule, less than 0.5 as small, and less than 0.8 as medium. This study showed only small to low-medium effect sizes for everything.
I haven’t checked whether differences between effect sizes were significant. But just eyeballing them, this study doesn’t agree with my hypothesis that SSRIs are better for anxiety than for depression; the GAD-7 effect size is about the same as the PHQ and BDI effect sizes.
It does weakly support a hypothesis where SSRIs are better for patient-rated improvement than for researcher-measured tests. The highest effect size was in “self-rated improvement”, where the researchers just asked the patients if they felt better. This effect size (0.49) was still small. But if we let ourselves round it up, it reaches all the way to “medium”. Progress!
What does this mean in real life? 59% of patients in the antidepressant group, compared to 42% of patients in the placebo group, said they felt better. I’m actually okay with this. It means that for every 58 patients who wouldn’t have gotten better on placebo, 17 of them would get better on an antidepressant – in other words, the antidepressant successfully converted 30% of people from nonresponder to responder. This obviously isn’t as good as 50% or 100%. But it doesn’t strike me as consistent with the claims of “clinically insignificant” and “why would anyone ever use these medications”?
(though of course, this is just one study, and it’s a study where I took the most promising of many different endpoints, so it’s not exactly cause for celebration)
If antidepressants do better on patient report than on our depression tests, does that mean our depression tests are bad? Maybe. Figure 4 from Hieronymous et al helps clarify a bit of what’s going on:
At least in less severely depressed patients, antidepressants are more likely to produce significant gains on vaguer or more fundamental symptoms (like “depressed mood” or “anxiety”) than on specific symptoms (like insomnia or psychomotor disruptions). Probably patients care a lot less about “psychomotor disruptions” than researchers studying depression do, and they just want to feel happy again. This study’s finding of an 0.4 – 0.5 effect size on patient response closely matches Hieronymous et al’s finding of an 0.4 – 0.5 effect size on depressed mood.
Like most studies, PANDA used a one-size-fits-all solution based on a single antidepressant. This is a reasonable choice for a study, but doesn’t match clinical practice, where we usually try one antidepressant, see if it works, and try another if it doesn’t. In patients like the ones in the study, who had failed treatment with sertraline, a usual next step would be to try bupropion. An even better idea would be to screen patients for more typical vs. atypical depression, start people on sertraline or bupropion based on the symptom profile, and then switch to the other if the first one didn’t work. The STAR*D trial did something like this, and got better results than an SSRI alone. I haven’t done the work I would need to compare this to STAR*D, but it seems possible that the extra push from targeted treatment could bring our 0.49 effect size up to the 0.7 or 0.8 level where we could actually feel fully confident prescribing this stuff.