Antidepressants no more effective than placebos, leading researcher claims in new book
By Steven Levingston
Antidepressants are little more than placebos, argues a new book on sale this week, adding to a long-brewing controversy over the drugs' effectiveness and raising questions about how America treats patients suffering from mental illness.
Irving Kirsch, a psychologist who has researched placebos and antidepressants for more than a decade and co-authored a seminal study in 1998, discovered after reviewing drug company data that there was little difference between the effects of antidepressants and the effects of placebos.
In "The Emperor's New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth," Kirsch extends the argument to the nature of depression and its treatment. After years of assessing the clinical studies, he rejects the conventional belief that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that drugs can fix. "The belief that antidepressants can cure depression chemically is simply wrong," he writes.
Kirsch, a professor of psychology at the University of Hull in Britain, was early and vocal in his skepticism about drug companies' claims for antidepressants. His 1998 study, conducted when he was at the University of Connecticut and co-authored with Guy Sapirstein, examined the improvement of patients taking antidepressants with that of patients given placebos. The authors found that the placebos gave patients about three-quarters of the improvement experienced by patients on the drugs.
In the book, Kirsch discusses not only published data but also studies that were withheld by drug companies. About 40 percent of the companies' clinical trials for specific drugs were withheld, and "by and large," Kirsch writes, "these were studies that had failed to show a significant benefit from taking the actual drug."
The book explores how critics tried over the years to discredit Kirsch's studies and how he dug deeper into the data. He also explains how placebos work and argues for treatments that steer clear of chemicals. "Depression is a serious problem, but drugs are not the answer," he writes. "In the long run, psychotherapy is both cheaper and more effective, even for very serious levels of depression."
By Steven E. Levingston |
February 4, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
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