The Double-Blind Variable Placebo Lead-in Period: Results From Two Antidepressant Clinical Trials

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The 1-week single-blind placebo lead-in has long been a standard in double-blind psychopharmacology clinical trials. Although a lead-in period is often necessary (e.g., to receive laboratory results before randomization), some authors have demonstrated that the standard single-blind placebo lead-in’s performance was similar to having a lead-in in which placebo was not administered. The single-blind placebo lead-in did not decrease postrandomization placebo response, nor did it increase drug–placebo differences. To eliminate a higher percentage of placebo responders before randomization and to reduce potential biases in baseline ratings, the authors designed and implemented two depression studies with a double-blind variable placebo lead-in period. In these designs, both the patients and personnel at the investigative sites were blinded to the length of the placebo lead-in period and the start of the active treatment period. Approximately 28% of the patients in the double-blind placebo lead-in studies met criteria to be placebo lead-in responders, as compared with fewer than 10% from two single-blind placebo lead-in studies conducted in a similar time frame. Although all patients continued in the study (including placebo lead-in responders), the primary efficacy analysis prospectively excluded double-blind placebo lead-in responders. Analysis of postrandomization changes revealed that double-blind placebo lead-in responders, even when continuing to receive placebo treatment, maintained their response. At the study endpoint, these placebo lead-in responders had significantly lower severity scores than their counterparts who were not lead-in responders. The prospective removal of lead-in responders thus resulted in an increase in mean endpoint placebo group severity scores. This resulted in an increased drug–placebo treatment difference in one of the two studies but had no effect on the treatment difference in the other study.

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