Association of single-blind placebo run-in periods with the placebo response in randomized clinical trials of antidepressants: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Amelia J. Scott*, Louise Sharpe, Veronica Quinn, Ben Colagiuri

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    18 Citations (Scopus)


    Importance: Single-blind placebo run-in (PRI) periods are common in randomized clinical trials (RCTs) of treatment for depression. They aim to increase sensitivity to detect drug effects; however, the association of PRI periods with study outcomes remains unclear. This is concerning given the costs of PRI periods to patients and investigators. 

    Objective: To examine the association of the use of PRI periods with the placebo response, drug response, and drug-placebo difference among RCTs of antidepressants. 

    Data Sources: MEDLINE, Embase, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, and PsycINFO, as well as repositories of unpublished studies, were systematically searched up to July 2021. 

    Study Selection: Included studies were double-blind, placebo-controlled RCTs of antidepressant medication among adults with depressive disorders. 

    Data Extraction and Synthesis: Data were extracted into a coding sheet, including the characteristics of studies, the characteristics of PRI periods, and the outcomes of studies. 

    Main Outcomes and Measures: Study outcomes were the primary depression symptom measure reported by the RCT. These outcomes were used to calculate effect sizes (Hedges g) of the within-group drug response and placebo response as well as the drug-placebo difference. Random-effects meta-analysis was used to calculate effect sizes, and subgroup analyses were used to compare outcomes depending on use of PRI periods. 

    Results: A total of 347 trials (representing 89183 participants) were included; 174 studies (50%) reported using a single-blind PRI period. Response outcome data were available for 189 studies. Studies using PRI periods reported a smaller placebo response (g = 1.05 [95% CI, 0.98-1.11]; I2 = 82%) than studies that did not use a PRI period (g = 1.15 [95% CI, 1.09-1.21]; I2 = 81%; P =.02). Subgroup analysis showed a larger drug response size among studies that did not use a PRI period (g = 1.55 [95% CI, 1.49-1.61]; I2 = 85%) than those that did use a PRI period (g = 1.42 [95% CI, 1.36-1.48]; I2 = 81%; P =.001). The drug-placebo difference did not differ by use of PRI periods (g = 0.33 [95% CI, 0.29-0.38]; I2 = 47% for use of a PRI period vs g = 0.34 [95% CI, 0.30-0.38]; I2 = 54% for no use of PRI periods; P =.92). The likelihood of response to drug vs placebo also did not differ between studies that used a PRI period (odds ratio, 1.89 [95% CI, 1.76-2.03]) and those that did not use a PRI period (odds ratio, 1.77 [95% CI, 1.65-1.89]; P =.18). 

    Conclusions and Relevance: This study suggests that RCTs using PRI periods yield smaller within-group changes across both placebo and drug groups compared with RCTs without PRI periods. The reduction in effect size across groups was equivalent in magnitude. Consequently, PRI studies do not observe larger drug-placebo differences, suggesting that they do not increase trial sensitivity. As such, given the resources and probable deception required and risk to external validity, the practice of using PRI periods in RCTs of antidepressants should be ended.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)42-49
    Number of pages8
    JournalJAMA Psychiatry
    Issue number1
    Early online date10 Nov 2021
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2022


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