The antidepressant debate and the balanced placebo trial design: An ethical analysis.
Author(s): Waring DR
Affiliation(s): York University, Toronto, Canada.
Publication date & source: 2008-10-25, Int J Law Psychiatry., [Epub ahead of print]
There is ongoing debate about whether randomized, placebo-controlled trials under a double-blind have reliably established the pharmacological efficacy of antidepressants. Numerous meta-analyses of antidepressant efficacy trials, e.g., Kirsch et al. [Kirsch, I., Moore, T. J., Scoboria, A., & Nicholls, S. (2002). The emperor's new drugs: An analysis of antidepressant medication data submitted to the U.S. food and drug administration. Prevention and Treatment, 5, Article 23. (Retrieved July 19, 2007 from http://journals.apa.org/prevention/volume5)], have shown a modest drug-placebo difference but methodological problems with standard trial design preclude a definitive conclusion that this difference results from specific biological effects of antidepressants or the nonspecific factors that have not been adequately excluded. Standard trial design assumes the additivity thesis of pharmacological efficacy, being the assumption that the specific or "true" magnitude of the pharmacological effect is limited to the difference between the drug and placebo responses in a standard trial. If the drug effects are as small as these meta-analyses suggest, then their clinical effectiveness is questionable. If the drug effects are actually larger but masked by placebo effects, then the additivity thesis is not valid and we risk false negative results with standard trial design. Kirsch et al. propose an alternative, four arm balanced placebo trial design (BPTD) that can accurately test the additivity thesis. The BPTD uses antidepressants, active placebos and the intentional deception of research subjects. My focal question is whether the BPTD is ethically defensible. I will explore two objections that can be raised against it: 1) lying to BPTD research subjects violates their autonomy and exploits their illness and 2) the BPTD may not enable us to test the additivity thesis with accuracy, i.e., it may contribute to the masking of drug effects that it aims to avoid. I argue that these objections support the conclusion that the BPTD is ethically indefensible.