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Health Team

Study highlights benefit of antidepressant medications

Posted January 5, 2010 6:36 p.m. EST
Updated January 5, 2010 6:38 p.m. EST

Doctors use a variety of therapies to treat depression, including antidepressant medications. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows the medications offered a substantial benefit for only one group of patients.

Doctors say depression, which might affect as many as 1 in 10 adults each year, is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Medication can help correct those imbalances, but researchers discovered the effect of these drugs, relative to a placebo, wasn’t notable for many patients.

"What we found is that patients who are on the lower end of the severity, even on the sort of middle range of severity, the medications weren't doing much more than the placebo was," said Dr. Jay C. Fournier, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia who was involved in the study. "For patients at the higher end of severity, the medications had a very potent effect."

Researchers assessed data from several studies completed over the past 20 years, looking at the effect of antidepressants versus a placebo on more than 700 outpatients treated for depression.

"It both highlights the importance of the medicines for those patients who are at the more severe ranges of depression, but it also questions the importance of those same medicines for patients whose severity levels are moderate or less," said Dr. Robert J. Derubeis, also with the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia.

Researchers said patients in the study had to have a severe case of depression to show an actual benefit of the medication over a placebo. They also note that some patients taking a placebo did see improvement in their symptoms.