February 3, 2010
Although the year is young, it has already brought my first moral dilemma. In early January a friend mentioned that his New Year’s resolution was to beat his chronic depression once and for all. Over the years he had tried a medicine chest’s worth of antidepressants, but none had really helped in any enduring way, and when the side effects became so unpleasant that he stopped taking them, the withdrawal symptoms (cramps, dizziness, headaches) were torture. Did I know of any research that might help him decide whether a new antidepressant his doctor recommended might finally lift his chronic darkness at noon?
The moral dilemma was this: oh, yes, I knew of 20-plus years of research on antidepressants, from the old tricyclics to the newer selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that target serotonin (Zoloft, Paxil, and the granddaddy of them all, Prozac, as well as their generic descendants) to even newer ones that also target norepinephrine (Effexor, Wellbutrin).
[efoods]But ever since a seminal study in 1998, whose findings were reinforced by landmark research in The Journal of the American Medical Association last month, that evidence has come with a big asterisk. Yes, the drugs are effective, in that they lift depression in most patients. But that benefit is hardly more than what patients get when they, unknowingly and as part of a study, take a dummy pill—a placebo. As more and more scientists who study depression and the drugs that treat it are concluding, that suggests that antidepressants are basically expensive Tic Tacs.
Hence the moral dilemma. The placebo effect—that is, a medical benefit you get from an inert pill or other sham treatment—rests on the holy trinity of belief, expectation, and hope. But telling someone with depression who is being helped by antidepressants, or who (like my friend) hopes to be helped, threatens to topple the whole house of cards. Explain that it’s all in their heads, that the reason they’re benefiting is the same reason why Disney’s Dumbo could initially fly only with a feather clutched in his trunk—believing makes it so—and the magic dissipates like fairy dust in a windstorm. So rather than tell my friend all this, I chickened out. Sure, I said, there’s lots of research showing that a new kind of antidepressant might help you. Come, let me show you the studies on PubMed.