Background: There is debate in the literature as to whether inclusion of a placebo arm may alter characteristics of antidepressant trials. However, previous research has focused on response rates of various antidepressants on average only, ignoring potential differences among drugs or other aspects of trial findings. Little is known about the impact of a placebo arm on all-cause dropout and dropout due to adverse events.
Methods: We carried out a systematic review of published and unpublished double-blind randomized controlled trials (RCTs) for the acute treatment of unipolar major depression (update: January 2016). The probability of being allocated to placebo (π) was the exposure of interest, and we examined its influence on responders (efficacy), all-cause dropouts (acceptability) and dropouts due to adverse events (tolerability), while accounting for differences in drugs, trials and patient characteristics in multivariate random effects meta-regression.
Results: We included 421 studies (68 305 participants) comparing 16 antidepressants or placebo; π ranged from 20% to 50%. Response rate was lower [risk ratio (RR) 0.87; 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.83, 0.92] and all-cause dropout rate higher (RR 1.19; 95% CI 1.08, 1.31) for the same antidepressants in placebo-controlled trials compared with head-to-head trials. The probability of responding decreased by 3% (95% CI 2-5%) for every 10% increase in π, whereas the risk of all-cause dropout increased by 4% (95% CI 1-7%). Tolerability was unaffected by π. Response rate was inversely correlated with dropouts due to any cause (correlation coefficient -0.48; 95% CI -0.58, -0.36) and due to adverse events (-0.34; 95% CI -0.44, -0.23).
Conclusions: For the same antidepressant, response rate was on average smaller and dropouts higher when placebo was included; however, no association was found with dropouts due to adverse events. Decreased patient expectations, larger dropout rates and use of inappropriate statistical methods to impute missing data may explain this phenomenon. The findings call for caution in the integration of randomized evidence involving placebo arms.