Paxil: The Whole Truth?

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By Neuroskeptic
Mar 6, 2011 10:20 PMNov 5, 2019 12:17 AM


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Paroxetine, aka Paxil aka Seroxat, is an SSRI antidepressant.

Like other SSRIs, its reputation has see-sawed over time. Hailed as miracle drugs in the 1990s and promoted for everything from depression to "separation anxiety" in dogs, they fell from grace over the past decade.

First, concerns emerged over withdrawal symptoms and suicidality especially in young people. Then more recently their antidepressant efficacy came into serious question. Paroxetine has arguably the worstimage of all SSRIs, although whether it's much different to the rest is unclear.

Now a new paper claims to provide a definitive assessment of the safety and efficacy of paroxetine

in adults (age 18+).

The lead authors are from GlaxoSmithKline, who invented paroxetine. So it's no surprise that the text paints GSK and their product in a favourable light, but the data warrant a close look and the results are rather interesting - and complicated.

They took all of the placebo-controlled trials on paroxetine for any psychiatric disorder - because it wasn't just trialled in depression, but also in PTSD, anxiety, and more. They excluded studies with fewer than 30 people; this makes sense though it's somewhat arbitrary, why not 40 or 20? Anyway, they ended up with 61 trials.

First they looked at suicide. In a nutshell paroxetine increased suicidal "behaviour or ideation" in younger patients (age 25 or below) relative to placebo, whether or not they were being treated for depression. In older patients, it only increased suicidality in the depression trials, and the effect was smaller. I've put a red dot where paroxetine was worse than placebo; this doesn't mean the effect was "statistically significant", but the numbers are so small that this is fairly meaningless. Just look at the numbers.

This is not very new. It's been accepted for a while that broadly the same applies when you look at trials of other antidepressants. Whether this causes extra suicides in the real world is a big question.

When it comes to efficacy, however, we find some rather startling info that's not been presented together in one article before, to my knowledge. Here's a graph showing the effect of paroxetine over-and-above placebo in all the different disorders, expressed as a proportion of the improvement seen in the placebo group.

Now I should point out that I just made this measure up. It's not ideal. If the placebo response is very small, then a tiny drug effect will seem large by comparison, even if what this really means is that neither drug nor placebo do any good.

However the flip side of that coin is that it controls for the fact that rating scales for different disorders might be just more likely to show change than others. The d score is a more widely used standardized measure of effect size - though it has its own shortcomings - and I'd like to know those, but the data they provide don't allow us to easily calculate it. You could do it from the GSK database but it would take ages.

Anyway as you can see paroxetine was better, relative to placebo, against PTSD, PMDD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and social anxiety, than it was against depression measured with the "gold-standard" HAMD scale! In fact the only thing it was worse against was Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Using the alternative MADRS depression scale, the antidepressant effect was bigger, but still small compared to OCD and social anxiety.

This is rather remarkable. Everyone calls paroxetine "an antidepressant", yet at least in one important sense it works better against OCD and social anxiety than it does against depression!

In fact, is paroxetine an antidepressant at all? It works better on MADRS and very poorly on the HAMD; is this because the HAMD is a better scale of depression, and the MADRS actually measures anxiety or OCD symptoms?

That's a lovely neat theory... but in fact the HAMD-17 has two questions about anxiety, scoring 0-4 points each, so you can score up to 8 (or 12 if you count "hypochondriasis", which is basically health anxiety, so you probably should), out of a total maximum of 52. The MADRS has one anxiety item with a max score of 6 on a total of 60. So the HAMD is more "anxious" than the MADRS.

This is more than just a curiosity. Paroxetine's antidepressant effect was tiny in those aged 25 or under on the HAMD - treatment just 9% of the placebo effect - but on the MADRS in the same age group, the benefit was 35%! So what isthe HAMD measuring and why is it different to the MADRS?

Honestly, it's hard to tell because the Hamilton scale is so messy. It measures depression and the other distressing symptoms which commonly go along with it.

The idea, I think, was that it was meant to be a scale of the patient's overall clinical severity - how seriously they were suffering - rather than a measure of depression per se.

Which is fine. Except that most modern trials carefully exclude anyone with "comorbid" symptoms like anxiety, and on the other hand, recruit people with symptoms quite different to the depressed inpatients that Dr Max Hamilton would have seen when he invented the scale in 1960.

Yet 50 years later the HAMD17, unmodified, is still the standard scale. It's been repeatedly shown to be multi-factorial (it doesn't measure one thing), no-one even agrees on how to interpret it, and a "new scale", the HAMD6, which consists of simply chucking out 11 questions and keeping the 6 that actually measure depression, has been shown to be better. Yet everyone still uses the HAMD17 because everyone else does.

Link: I recently covered a dodgy paper about paroxetine in adolescents with depression; it wasn't included in this analysis because this was about adults.

Carpenter DJ, Fong R, Kraus JE, Davies JT, Moore C, & Thase ME (2011). Meta-analysis of efficacy and treatment-emergent suicidality in adults by psychiatric indication and age subgroup following initiation of paroxetine therapy: a complete set of randomized placebo-controlled trials. The Journal of clinical psychiatry PMID: 21367354

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