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Psychiatrist, Drug Thyself

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticDecember 3, 2009 12:15 AM


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Psychiatrists give their patients all kinds of drugs, but in most cases, they do so without ever taking any themselves. Some French psychiatrists found an excuse to try out some drugs in the name of science, and the results are published in a paper just out - Besnier et al's Effects of paroxetine on emotional functioning and treatment awareness.

Thirty healthy psychiatrists and clinical psychologists took paroxetine 20mg per day, or placebo pills, for 4 weeks. Paroxetine (Paxil, Seroxat) is a popular SSRI antidepressant - popular with doctors, at least. It has a bad reputation amongst users as causing serious withdrawl symptoms, even compared to other SSRIs. These psychiatrists decided to wean themselves off with a week at a reduced dose of 10mg before stopping completely - after just one month on it! Make of that what you will.

Anyway, what happened? The participants experienced no changes in mood or anxiety, although since they weren't depressed or anxious to begin with, this is not surprising. However, the people taking paroxetine did report reduced "Internal Emotional Experience" as measured with the Emotional State Questionnaire (designed by the same people who ran this study.) That means they were less likely to answer yes to questions like “Do you feel anger when faced with a familiar face with expressed anger?”

This sounds as though they experienced the "emotional blunting" reported by some people who take SSRIs, although it's not clear what exactly this questionnaire is measuring, or how powerful the effect was. The paroxetine group also reported feeling sedated and suffered many more side effects - 70% of participants presented with an adverse event for more than 3 weeks, vs 20% of placebo.

Most described adverse events were psychiatric (sleepiness disorders, libido decreased), gastrointestinal (nausea, diarrhea), or neurological signs (headache).

There's a twist, though, in that while 20 of the subjects got placebo or paroxetine in a double-blind manner (10 each), the other 10 got paroxetine unblinded, i.e. they knew they were not going to get placebo. Strangely, the unblinded group experienced much weaker effects than the double-blind paroxetine group, including many fewer side effects. What's up with that? It's hard to say. It doesn't make much sense. To be honest, with just 10 people in each group, any or all of these results could be random chance anyway.

Still, I do like the idea of psychiatrists self-experimenting. Sadly we're not told whether they were more or less likely to prescribe paroxetine after taking it themselves! Still, I have a bit of anecdotal evidence here. I was talking to a French psychiatrist a while ago who said he'd self-prescribed the SSRI antidepressant citalopram and thought it was brilliant. But one day he accidentally picked up a box of chlorpromazine instead (they were next to each other on the shelf) and that wasn't much fun at all...

Freudian psychoanalysis requires trainee therapists to undergo a full course of therapy themselves before they get to inflict it on their patients. Maybe psychiatrists should have to take courses of antidepressants and antipsychotics as part of their training? Or as the psychopathic bounty hunter said to the doctor in Joss Whedon's Firefly -

Jubal Early: You ever been shot?Dr Simon Tam: No

.Jubal Early

: You oughta be shot. Or stabbed. Lose a leg. To be a surgeon, you know? Know what kind of pain you're dealing with. They make psychiatrists get psychoanalyzed before they can get certified, but they don't make a surgeon get cut on. That seem right to you?- Firefly


Besnier N, Cassé-Perrot C, Jouve E, Nguyen N, Lançon C, Falissard B, & Blin O (2009). Effects of paroxetine on emotional functioning and treatment awareness: a 4-week randomized placebo-controlled study in healthy clinicians. Psychopharmacology PMID: 19826792

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