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C r i t i c al Thi n k in g
Do Antidepressants Work Better Than Placebos?
60 Minutes/CBS News
Are antidepressants just fancy placebos? Consider this statement by psychologist Irving Kirsch on a 2012 episode of the TV
news show 60 Minutes: “The difference between the effect of the
placebo and the effect of an antidepressant is minimal for most
people.” Interviewer Lesley Stahl was astounded: “So, you’re saying if they took a sugar pill, they’d have the same effect?”
Kirsch’s surprising statement is based on meta-analyses
(Fournier & others, 2010; Kirsch & others, 2008). As discussed in
Chapter 1, a meta-analysis combines the results of many studies
into a single analysis. The meta-analyses to which Kirsch referred
included all studies, published and unpublished, that had been
submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration during the
process of approval for new antidepressants. It is important that
they included unpublished studies because unpublished studies
are more likely than published studies to have found no difference
between the placebo and the antidepressant. This is because journal editors tend to prefer publishing articles that found some difference rather than articles that found no difference (Turner, 2013).
Placebo Researcher Psychologist Irving Kirsch conducts
research at Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies.
Kirsch and his colleagues found that most patients improved
with either antidepressants or placebos (see graph on next page).
Antidepressants were found to work better than placebos for
some patients—but only those with very high levels of depression,
the area shown in blue. Except in that area, the difference between
the lines could have simply occurred by chance. Overall, according
to Kirsch and his colleagues, about 80 percent of the improvement
from antidepressants seems to be due to a placebo effect.
The placebo effect, as discussed in Chapter 1 on page 29 and
Chapter 12 on page 512, has been well documented and is not limited to psychological disorders. Placebos have been demonstrated
to lead to improvements in a range of health problems, including
the management of pain and the treatment of symptoms related
to the gastrointestinal, endocrine, cardiovascular, respiratory, and
immune systems (Price & others, 2008). For example, in one
study, patients with Parkinson’s disease experienced improved
movement after taking a placebo. In another study, people who
simply held a bottle of ibuprofen reported lower levels of pain than
people who did not hold the bottle (Price & others, 2008; Rutchick
& Slepian, 2013).
You may now be thinking that the placebo effect means that
any improvements are just imaginary. But as described in Chapter 12 on page 512, brain imaging shows that placebos lead to real
biological changes (Meissner & others, 2011). In response to a
placebo, patients with Parkinson’s disease experience increased
dopamine activation, pain patients saw less neural activity in the
parts of the brain associated with pain, and depressed patients
experienced metabolic increases in the same parts of the brain
that respond to antidepressants (Price & others, 2008). Interestingly, another study found
that the effect of a placebo My t h
on Parkinson’s symptoms was Is it true that antidepressants
stronger when patients thought are a much more effective
the placebo was expensive treatment than placebos for
than when they thought it was the vast majority of cases of
cheap (Espay & others, 2015). depression?
Either way, improvements tend
to come without the side effects and potentially high costs of
“real” medication.
Electroconvulsive Therapy
electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) A biomedical therapy used primarily in the
treatment of major depressive disorder that
involves electrically inducing a brief brain
seizure; also called electroshock therapy.
Hockenbury_7e_CH14_3rd_Pass.indd 622
As we have just seen, millions of prescriptions are written for antidepressant medications in the United States every year. In contrast, a much smaller number of patients
receive electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, as a medical treatment for severe
cases of major depressive disorder. Also known as electroshock therapy or shock therapy,
electroconvulsive therapy involves using a brief burst of electric current to induce a
seizure in the brain, much like an epileptic seizure. Although ECT is most commonly
used to treat major depressive disorder, it is occasionally used to treat mania, schizophrenia, and other severe mental disorders (Nahas & Anderson, 2011).
ECT is a relatively simple and quick medical procedure, usually performed in a hospital. The patient lies on a table. Electrodes are placed on one or both of the patient’s
temples, and the patient is given a short-term, light anesthetic and muscle-relaxing drugs.
To ensure adequate airflow, a breathing tube is sometimes placed in the patient’s throat.
08/10/15 6:32 PM
Biomedica l Therapies
Improvement following treatment
unlikely to
be due to
Level of depression before treatment
Placebo Versus Antidepressant According to a metaanalysis by psychologist Irving Kirsch and his colleagues
(2008), antidepressants work no better than placebos in the
treatment of depression for many people. This graph shows
improvement for depressed people with varying starting
levels of depression—from low depression on the left to high
depression on the right. The green line shows improvement
for depressed people taking antidepressant medication. The
red line shows improvement for depressed people taking
placebos. Antidepressants did produce greater improvement
for some people, but these differences were only substantial
enough to be considered “real” in people with the highest
levels of initial depression (area indicated by blue shading).
Source: Data from Kirsch & others (2008).
Kirsch argues that we should question whether it’s worth the
risk of giving a “real” drug when a placebo is just as effective for
some people. But this may be a hard sell to physicians and patients
who believe that antidepressants are the most effective treatment
for depression. Other researchers view the pharmaceutical industry, which has immense resources, as contributing to exaggerated
reports of the effects of medications (Cuijpers & others, 2010).
Pharmaceutical companies have billions of dollars at stake in convincing physicians and patients that their medications are effective,
and they spend more than $25 billion each year just in the United
States marketing their drugs (Kornfield & others, 2013).
While acknowledging concerns about the influence of the
pharmaceutical industry, other researchers have found that antidepressants are superior to placebos. Using different statistical methods, several researchers identified a subset of about 20 percent of patients who benefited from antidepressants over
placebos at all levels of depression severity (Horder & others,
2011; Thase & others, 2011). But even these researchers don’t
entirely dispute Kirsch’s findings.
As more is known about the effects of placebos, there is more
discussion about how to harness their power. Researchers suggest that clinicians should receive training on ethical ways to
openly and successfully prescribe placebos by educating patients
about their effectiveness (Brody & Miller, 2011). In the past, clinicians believed that successful treatment with placebos required
that the patients believe the placebo was real, but recent research
questions this premise. One study on irritable bowel syndrome
(IBS) observed improvement in patients even after they were told
they were receiving “placebo pills made of an inert substance, like
sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce
significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind–body
self-healing processes” (Kaptchuk & others, 2010).
Research on the placebo effect continues to accumulate. However, despite Kirsch’s argument, it’s important to remember that
many people have been and continue to be helped by antidepressant medication. Other treatment options, such as psychotherapy,
may be unavailable. So, if antidepressants are helping you, you
should continue to take them as directed by your physician. It can
be dangerous to stop taking antidepressant medications without
guidance from a physician.
• Why do you think studies that found differences are more likely
to be published than studies that found no differences?
• What is the ethical problem with giving a patient a placebo and
saying it is an antidepressant?
• Why might simply giving a patient a placebo openly not work
without additional education?
While the patient is unconscious, a split-second burst of electricity induces a seizure. The seizure lasts for about a minute. Outwardly, the seizure typically produces
mild muscle tremors. After the anesthesia wears off and the patient wakes up, confusion and disorientation may be present for a few hours. Some patients experience a
temporary or permanent memory loss for the events leading up to the treatment. To
treat major depressive disorder, the patient typically receives two to three treatments
per week for two to seven weeks, with less frequent follow-up treatments for several
additional months (Fink, 2009).
In the short term, ECT is a very effective treatment for severe cases of major depressive disorder: About 80 percent of patients improve (Rasmussen, 2009). ECT also
relieves the symptoms of depression very quickly, typically within days. Author Donald
Antrim once described his experience with ECT as “the color came back on” (Sullivan,
2014). And as the symptoms of depression decrease, ECT patients’ quality of life tends to
increase to a level similar to that in people without depression (McCall & others, 2013).
Hockenbury_7e_CH14_3rd_Pass.indd 623
My t h
Is it true that electroconvulsive
therapy (ECT), once called “shock
therapy,” causes permanent brain
damage and memory loss?
08/10/15 6:32 PM