Antidepressants get overly positive spin

Here’s some depressing news about antidepressant drugs. Studies that find beneficial effects of antidepressants for depressed patients get published far more readily than do studies that report no such gains, say psychiatrist Erick H. Turner of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Portland, Ore., and his colleagues.

Moreover, published versions of studies that failed to show antidepressant advantages over placebo pills often cast the results in an unduly positive way, Turner’s team reports in the Jan. 17 New England Journal of Medicine.

The scientists obtained reviews conducted at the Food and Drug Administration for 74 clinical trials, covering a total of 12,564 depressed patients who received any of 12 antidepressant drugs.

Of the 74 trials, the FDA deemed 38 to have shown improvement on antidepressants, according to the researchers. All but one of those trials appeared in print. Another 24 trials found no antidepressant benefits, federal officials concluded, while the remaining 12 achieved mixed results. Of those 36 studies, only 14 were published, and in 11 cases, journal articles put a largely positive spin on the findings, Turner says.

The totality of evidence shows that each antidepressant alleviates depression better than placebos do, Turner notes. However, selective publication of positive results inflates this antidepressant advantage, in his view.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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