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“Trainwrecks”

May 15, 2012

One of the highlights of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) Annual Meeting is the Exhibit Hall.  Here, under bright lights and fancy multimedia displays, sponsors get to show off their new wares.  If anyone wonders whether modern psychiatry isn’t all about psychopharmacology, one visit to the APA Exhibit Hall would set them straight.  Far and away, the biggest and glitziest displays are those of Big Pharma, promising satisfaction and success—and legions of grateful patients—for prescribing their products.

At the 2012 Annual Meeting last week, I checked out most of the Pharma exhibits, mainly just to see what was in the pipeline.  (Not much, it turns out.)  I didn’t partake in any of the refreshments—lest I be reported to the Feds as the recipient of a $2 cappuccino or a $4 smoothie—but still felt somewhat like an awestruck Charlie Bucket in Willie Wonka’s miraculous Chocolate Factory.

One memorable exchange was at the Nuedexta booth.  Nuedexta, as readers of this blog may recall from a 2011 post, is a combination of dextromethorphan and quinidine, sold by Avanir Pharmaceuticals and approved for the treatment of “pseudobulbar affect,” or PBA.  PBA is a neurological condition, found in patients with multiple sclerosis or stroke, and characterized by uncontrollable laughing and crying.  While PBA can be a devastating condition, treatment options do exist.  In my blog post I wrote that “a number of medications, including SSRIs like citalopram, and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), are effective in managing the symptoms of PBA.”  One year later, Nuedexta still has not been approved by the FDA for any other indication than PBA.

In my discussion with the Avanir salesman, I asked the same question I posed to the Avanir rep one year ago:  “If I had a patient in whom I suspected PBA, I’d probably refer him to his neurologist for management of that condition—so why, as a psychiatrist, would I use this medication?”  The rep’s answer, delivered in that cool, convincing way that can only emerge from the salesman’s anima, was a disturbing insight into the practice of psychiatry in the 21st century:

“Well, you probably have some patients who are real trainwrecks, with ten things going on.  Chances are, there might be some PBA in there, so why not try some Nuedexta and see if it makes a difference?”

I nodded, thanked him, and politely excused myself.  (I also promptly tweeted about the exchange.)  I don’t know if his words comprised an official Nuedexta sales pitch, but the ease with which he shared it (no wink-wink, nudge-nudge here) suggested that it has proven successful in the past.  Quite frankly, it’s also somewhat ugly.

First of all, I refuse to refer to any of my patients as “trainwrecks.”  Doctors and medical students sometimes use this term to refer to patients with multiple problems and who, as a result, are difficult to care for.  We’ve all used it, myself included.  But the more I empathize with my patients and try to understand their unique needs and wishes, the more I realize how condescending it is.  (Some might refer to me as a “trainwreck,” too, given certain aspects of my past.)  Furthermore, many of the patients with this label have probably—and unfortunately—earned it as a direct result of psychiatric “treatment.”

Secondly, as any good scientist will tell you, the way to figure out the inner workings of a complicated system is to take it apart and analyze its core features.  If a person presents an unclear diagnostic picture, clouded by a half-dozen medications and no clear treatment goals, the best approach is to take things away and see what remains, not to add something else to the mix and “see if it makes a difference.”

Third, the words of the Avanir rep demonstrate precisely what is wrong with our modern era of biological psychopharmacology.  Because the syndromes and “disorders” we treat are so vague, and because many symptoms can be found in multiple conditions—not to mention everyday life—virtually anything a patient reports could be construed as an indication for a drug, with a neurobiological mechanism to “explain” it.  This is, of course, exactly what I predicted for Nuedexta when I referred to it as a “pipeline in a pill” (a phrase that originally came from Avanir’s CEO).  But the same could be said for just about any drug a psychiatrist prescribes for an “emotional” or “behavioral” problem.  When ordinary complaints can be explained by tenuous biological pathways, it becomes far easier to rationalize the use of a drug, regardless of whether data exist to support it.

Finally, the strategy of “throw a medication into the mix and see if it works” is far too commonplace in psychiatry.  It is completely mindless and ignores any understanding of the underlying biology (if there is such a thing) of the illnesses we treat.  And yet it has become an accepted treatment paradigm.  Consider, for instance, the use of atypical antipsychotics in the treatment of depression.  Not only have the manufacturers of Abilify and Seroquel XR never explained how a dopamine partial agonist or antagonist (respectively) might help treat depression, but look at the way they use the results of STAR*D to help promote their products.  STAR*D, as you might recall, was a large-scale, multi-step study comparing multiple antidepressants which found that no single antidepressant was any better than any other.  (All were pretty poor, actually.)  The antipsychotic manufacturers want us to use their products not because they performed well in STAR*D (they weren’t even in STAR*D!!!) but because nothing else seemed to work very well.

If the most convincing argument we can make for a drug therapy is “well, nothing else has worked, so let’s try it,” this doesn’t bode well for the future of our field.  This strategy is mindless and sloppy, not to mention potentially dangerous.  It opens the floodgates for expensive and relatively unproven treatments which, in all fairness, may work in some patients, but add to the iatrogenic burden—and diagnostic confusion—of others.  It also permits Pharma (and the APA’s key opinion leaders) to maintain the false promise of a neurochemical solution for the human, personal suffering of those who seek our help.

This, in my opinion, is the real “trainwreck” that awaits modern psychiatry.  And only psychiatrists can keep us on the tracks.

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Latuda-Palooza: Marketing or Education?

October 2, 2011

In my last blog post, I wrote about an invitation I received to a symposium on Sunovion Pharmaceuticals’ new antipsychotic Latuda.  I was concerned that my attendance might be reported as a “payment” from Sunovion under the requirements of the Physicians Payment Sunshine Act.  I found it a bit unfair that I might be seen as a recipient of “drug money” (and all the assumptions that go along with that) when, in fact, all I wanted to do was learn about a new pharmaceutical agent.

As it turns out, Sunovion confirmed that my participation would NOT be reported (they start reporting to the feds on 1/1/12), so I was free to experience a five-hour Latuda extravaganza yesterday in San Francisco.  I was prepared for a marketing bonanza of epic proportion—a la the Viagra launch scene in “Love And Other Drugs.”  And in some ways, I got what I expected:  two outstanding and engaging speakers (Dr Stephen Stahl of NEI and Dr Jonathan Meyer of UCSD); a charismatic “emcee” (Richard Davis of Arbor Scientia); an interactive “clicker” system which allowed participants to answer questions throughout the session and check our responses in real time; full lunch & breakfast, coffee and snacks; all in a posh downtown hotel.  (No pens or mugs, though.)

The educational program consisted of a plenary lecture by Dr Stahl, followed by workshops in which we broke up into “teams” and participated in three separate activities:  first, a set of computer games (modeled after “Pyramid” and “Wheel Of Fortune”) in which we competed to answer questions about Latuda and earn points for our team; second, a “scavenger hunt” in which we had 5 minutes to find answers from posters describing Latuda’s clinical trials (sample question: “In Study 4 (229), what proportion of subjects withdrew from the Latuda 40 mg/d treatment arm due to lack of efficacy?”); and finally, a series of case studies presented by Dr Meyer which used the interactive clicker system to assess our comfort level in prescribing Latuda for a series of sample patients.  My team came in second place.

I must admit, the format was an incredibly effective way for Sunovion to teach doctors about its newest drug.  It reinforced my existing knowledge—and introduced me to a few new facts—while it was also equally accessible to physicians who had never even heard about Latuda.

Moreover, the information was presented in an unbiased fashion.  Unbiased?, you may ask.  But wasn’t the entire presentation sponsored by Sunovion?  Yes, it was, but in my opinion the symposium achieved its stated goals:  it summarized the existing data on Latuda (although see here for some valid criticism of that data); presented it in a straightforward, effective (and, at times, fun) way; and allowed us doctors to make our own decisions.  (Stahl did hint that the 20-mg dose is being studied for bipolar depression, not an FDA-approved indication, but that’s also publicly available on the clinicaltrials.gov website.)  No one told us to prescribe Latuda; no one said it was better than any other existing antipsychotic; no one taught us how to get insurance companies to cover it; and—in case any “pharmascold” is still wondering—no one promised us any kickbacks for writing prescriptions.

(Note:  I did speak with Dr Stahl personally after his lecture.  I asked him about efforts to identify patient-specific factors that might predict a more favorable response to Latuda than to other antipsychotics.  He spoke about current research in genetic testing, biomarkers, and fMRI to identify responders, but he also admitted that it’s all guesswork at this point.  “I might be entirely wrong,” he admitted, about drug mechanisms and how they correlate to clinical response, and he even remarked “I don’t believe most of what’s in my book.”  A refreshing—and surprising—revelation.)

In all honesty, I’m no more likely to prescribe Latuda today than I was last week.  But I do feel more confident in my knowledge about it.  It is as if I had spent five hours yesterday studying the Latuda clinical trials and the published Prescribing Information, except that I did it in a far more engaging forum.  As I mentioned to a few people (including Mr Davis), if all drug companies were to hold events like this when they launch new agents, rather than letting doctors decipher glossy drug ads in journals or from their drug reps, doctors would be far better educated than they are now when new drugs hit the market.

But this is a very slippery slope.  In fact, I can’t help but wonder if we may be too far down that slope already.  For better or for worse, Steve Stahl’s books have become de facto “standard” psychiatry texts, replacing classics like Kaplan & Sadock, the Oxford Textbook, and the American Psychiatric Press books.  Stahl’s concepts are easy to grasp and provide the paradigm under which most psychiatry is practiced today (despite his own misgivings—see above).  However, his industry ties are vast, and his “education” company, Neuroscience Education Institute (NEI), has close connections with medical communications companies who are basically paid mouthpieces for the pharmaceutical industry.  Case in point: Arbor Scientia, which was hired by Sunovion to organize yesterday’s symposium—and similar ones in other cities—shares its headquarters with NEI in Carlsbad, CA, and Mr Davis sits on NEI’s Board.

We may have already reached a point in psychiatry where the majority of what we consider “education” might better be described as marketing.  But where do we draw the line between the two?  And even after we answer that question, we must ask, (when) is this a bad thing?  Yesterday’s Sunovion symposium may have been an infomercial, but I still felt there was a much greater emphasis on the “info-” part than the “-mercial.”  (And it’s unfortunate that I’d be reported as a recipient of pharmaceutical money if I had attended the conference after January 1, 2012, but that’s for another blog post.)  The question is, who’s out there to make sure it stays that way?

I’ve written before that I don’t know whom to trust anymore in this field.  Seemingly “objective” sources—like lectures from my teachers in med school and residency—can be heavily biased, while “advertising” (like yesterday’s symposium) can, at times, be fair and informative.  The end result is a very awkward situation in modern psychiatry that is easy to overlook, difficult to resolve, and, unfortunately, still ripe for abuse.


“Dollars For Docs” – What It Really Means

September 25, 2011

A few weeks ago I received an invitation to an October 1 symposium on Latuda, a new antipsychotic from Sunovion (formerly known as Sepracor).  Latuda (lurasidone) was released about six months ago amidst much fanfare—and very aggressive marketing—as a new atypical antipsychotic with, among other advantages, pro-cognitive properties.

I have only prescribed Latuda to three patients, so I have only limited experience with it.  (In case you’re wondering:  one success, one failure, one equivocal.)  However, I have read several papers about Latuda, and I am interested in learning more about it.  The symposium’s plenary speaker is Stephen Stahl from the Neuroscience Education Institute.  Dr Stahl has received money from Sunovion (which is obvious from his publications and disclosures) but he is also a very knowledgeable neuroscientist.  I figured he would be able to describe the differences between Latuda and the other atypical antipsychotics currently on the market.  So I accepted the invitation.

However, upon further thought, I wondered whether my attendance might represent a “payment” from the Sunovion Corporation.  I was not offered any money from Sunovion to attend this event (in fact, you can see my invitation here: page1, page2).  Nevertheless, according to the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, which was passed as part of PPACA (i.e., “Obamacare”), all pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers, as of 2013, are required to report payments to physicians, including direct compensation as well as “food, entertainment, research funding, education or conference funding,” and so forth.

Despite the mandatory 2013 reporting date, several companies have already started reporting.  Other major drug firms to self-report thus far include AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, Merck, and Pfizer.  Their reports have been widely publicized at sites such as “Dollars For Docs,” which “allows the public to search for individual physicians to see whether they’ve been on pharma’s payroll.”  Several other sites encourage patients to use this site to ask “Does your doc get money from drug companies?”

A quick search of my own name reveals that I received $306 from Pfizer in the year 2010.  Wow!  I had no idea!  What exactly does this mean?  Am I a Pfizer slave?  Did my Pfizer rep walk up to me on 12/31/10, hand me a personal check for $306 and say, “Thank you, Dr. Balt, for prescribing Geodon and Pristiq this year—here’s $306 for your work, and we look forward to more in 2011”?

The answer is no.  I received no money from Pfizer (and, to be frank, I didn’t prescribe any Pristiq last year, because it’s essentially Effexor).  As it happens, during 2010 I worked part-time at a community mental health clinic.  The clinic permitted drug reps to come to the office, bring lunch, and distribute information about their products.  We had lunches 1-2 days out of the week, consisting of modest fare:  Panera sandwiches, trays of Chinese food, or barbecued ribs.  Most of the doctors didn’t have time to eat—or if we did, we scarfed it down in between patients—but we would often talk to the reps, ask questions about their drugs, and accept product literature (which virtually always went straight into the trash), reprints, and educational materials from them.

We were visited by most of the major drug companies in 2010.  (BTW, this continued into 2011, but we are no longer allowed—under our contract with the County mental health department—to accept free samples, and we no longer accept lunches.  Interestingly, my Pfizer rep told us that payments would be reported only as of 1/1/11 and NOT earlier; obviously that was untrue.)  All of the lunches were generally the same, and consisted of inexpensive, modest food, mainly consumed by the clinic staff—secretaries, administrators, assistants—since the doctors were actually working through the lunch hour.  I have since learned that the formula for calculating doctors’ payouts was to take the full cost of the lunch (including all staff members, remember), divide it by the number of doctors in the office, and report that sum.   That’s where you get my $306.00.

[In the interest of full disclosure, in my four years of practice post-residency, I have only been offered one “material” non-food gift: about three years ago, Janssen gave me a $100 voucher for a textbook; I used it to purchase Glen Gabbard’s psychodynamic psychotherapy text.]

Anyway, back to the Latuda symposium.  Knowing what I now know about drug companies, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sunovion reports a $1000+ payout to me if I attend this half-day symposium.  (Facility rental + A/V costs + Xeroxing/handouts + coffee service + refreshments, all divided by the # of docs in attendance.)  I frankly don’t want my future patients searching my name on Dollars For Docs and finding I received a huge “payment” from Sunovion in Q3 2011.  On the other hand, I would like to learn more about Latuda and whether/how it differs from other antipsychotics on the market (including generic first-generation agents).  If possible, I would also like to question Steve Stahl directly about some of what he’s written about this drug (including his Sunovion-funded articles).  What better forum to do this than in a public symposium??

[Note: please see ADDENDUM below.]  I have contacted two different Sunovion sales reps to ask whether my attendance will be “reported” as a payment, and if so, how much.  I have not received a response.  I also called the RSVP number for the symposium.  The registration is being managed by Arbor Scientia, a medical communications company contracted by Sunovion to manage these events.  I was directed to Heather of Arbor Scientia; I left her a message but have not yet received a return call.

So at this point, I am looking forward to attending an event to learn more about a new drug—and the opportunity to challenge the experts on the advantages (if any) of this drug over others—but in doing so, I might also be reported as having “received” a large payment from Sunovion, perhaps even larger than what Pfizer reported they paid me in 2010.

Patients should recognize that sometimes the only way for their doctors to learn about new drugs is to attend such events (assuming they can remain objective, which can be hard when the wine is freely flowing!).  Admittedly, there are doctors who accept much larger sums as speakers or “key opinion leaders,” but organizations like ProPublica should differentiate those doctors (with whom I, personally, have an ethical gripe) from those who are simply workaday folks like me who want to get as much information as they can, provide effective and cost-efficient care—and maybe inhale a free sandwich every once in a while.

ADDENDUM Sept. 26:  Today I received a phone call from Arbor Scientia (from a number that is actually registered as NEI’s main number—as it turns out, they are located in the same building) to assure me that Sunovion adheres to the Physician’s Sunshine Act provision: namely, that they’ll report “payments” to doctors only after January 1, 2012.  (See also here.)  Interestingly, my local Sunovion rep had told me 1/1/11.  (This is only somewhat reassuring: my Pfizer rep had told me they would start reporting as of 1/1/11, but clearly my “payments” from 2010 were reported.)


How Abilify Works, And Why It Matters

September 13, 2011

One lament of many in the mental health profession (psychiatrists and pharmascolds alike) is that we really don’t know enough about how our drugs work.  Sure, we have hypothetical mechanisms, like serotonin reuptake inhibition or NMDA receptor antagonism, which we can observe in a cell culture dish or (sometimes) in a PET study, but how these mechanisms translate into therapeutic effect remains essentially unknown.

As a clinician, I have noticed certain medications being used more frequently over the past few years.  One of these is Abilify (aripiprazole).  I’ve used Abilify for its approved indications—psychosis, acute mania, maintenance treatment of bipolar disorder, and adjunctive treatment of depression.  It frequently (but not always) works.  But I’ve also seen Abilify prescribed for a panoply of off-label indications: “anxiety,” “obsessive-compulsive behavior,” “anger,” “irritability,” and so forth.  Can one medication really do so much?  And if so, what does this say about psychiatry?

From a patient’s perspective, the Abilify phenomenon might best be explained by what it does not do.  If you ask patients, they’ll say that—in general—they tolerate Abilify better than other atypical antipsychotics.  It’s not as sedating as Seroquel, it doesn’t cause the same degree of weight gain as Zyprexa, and the risk of contracting uncomfortable movement disorders or elevated prolactin is lower than that of Risperdal.  To be sure, many people do experience side effects of Abilify, but as far as I can tell, it’s an acceptable drug to most people who take it.

Abilify is a unique pharmacological animal.  Like other atypical antipsychotics, it binds to several different neurotransmitter receptors; this “signature” theoretically accounts for its therapeutic efficacy and side effect profile.  But unlike others in its class, it doesn’t block dopamine (specifically, dopamine D2) or serotonin (specifically, 5-HT1A) receptors.  Rather, it’s a partial agonist at those receptors.  It can activate those receptors, but not to the full biological effect.  In lay terms, then, it can both enhance dopamine and serotonin signaling where those transmitters are deficient, and inhibit signaling where they’re in excess.

Admittedly, that’s a crude oversimplification of Abilify’s effects, and an inadequate description of how a “partial agonist” works.  Nevertheless, it’s the convenient shorthand that most psychiatrists carry around in their heads:  with respect to dopamine and serotonin (the two neurotransmitters which, at least in the current vernacular, are responsible for a significant proportion of pathological behavior and psychiatric symptomatology), Abilify is not an all-or-none drug.  It’s not an on-off switch. It’s more of a “stabilizer,” or, in the words of Stephen Stahl, a “Goldilocks drug.”

Thus, Abilify can be seen, at the same time, as both an antipsychotic, and not an antipsychotic.  It’s both an antidepressant, and not an antidepressant.  And when you have a drug that is (a) generally well tolerated, (b) seems to work by “stabilizing” two neurotransmitter systems, and (c) resists conventional classification in this way, it opens the floodgates for all sorts of potential uses in psychiatry.

Consider the following conditions, all of which are subjects of Abilify clinical trials currently in progress (thanks to clinicaltrials.gov):  psychotic depression; alcohol dependence; “aggression”; improvement of insulin sensitivity; antipsychotic-induced hyperprolactinemia; cocaine dependence; Tourette’s disorder; postpartum depression; methamphetamine dependence; obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); late-life bipolar disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); cognitive deficits in schizophrenia; alcohol dependence; autism spectrum disorders; fragile X syndrome; tardive dyskinesia; “subsyndromal bipolar disorder” (whatever that is) in children; conduct disorder; ADHD; prodromal schizophrenia; “refractory anxiety”; psychosis in Parkinson’s disease; anorexia nervosa; substance-induced psychosis; prodromal schizophrenia; trichotillomania; and Alzheimers-related psychosis.

Remember, these are the existing clinical trials of Abilify.  Each one has earned IRB approval and funding support.  In other words, they’re not simply the fantasies of a few rogue psychiatrists; they’re supported by at least some preliminary evidence, or at least a very plausible hypothesis.  The conclusion one might draw from this is that Abilify is truly a wonder drug, showing promise in nearly all of the conditions we treat as psychiatrists.  We’ll have to wait for the clinical trial results, but what we can say at this point is that a drug which works as a “stabilizer” of two very important neurotransmitter systems can be postulated to work in virtually any way a psychopharmalogist might want.

But even if these trials are negative, my prediction is that this won’t stop doctors from prescribing Abilify for each of the above conditions.  Why?  Because the mechanism of Abilify allows for such elegant explanations of pathology (“we need to tune down the dopamine signal to get rid of those flashbacks” or “the serotonin 1A effect might help with your anxiety” – yes, I’ve heard both of these in the last week), that it would be anathema, at least to current psychiatric practice, not to use it in this regard.

This fact alone should lead us to ask what this says about psychiatry as a whole.  The fact that one drug is prescribed so widely—owing to its relatively nonspecific effects and a good deal of creative psychopharmacology on the part of doctors like me—and is so broadly accepted by patients, should call into question our hypotheses about the pathophysiology of mental illness, and how psychiatric disorders are distinguished from one another.  It should challenge our theories of neurotransmitters and receptors and how their interactions underlie specific symptoms.  And it should give us reason to question whether the “stories” we tell ourselves and our patients carry more weight than the medications we prescribe.


Do Antipsychotics Treat PTSD?

August 23, 2011

Do antipsychotics treat PTSD?  It depends.  That seems to be the best response I can give, based on the results of two recent studies on this complex disorder.  A better question, though, might be: what do antipsychotics treat in PTSD?

One of these reports, a controlled, double-blinded study of the atypical antipsychotic risperidone (Risperdal) for the treatment of “military service-related PTSD,” was featured in a New York Times article earlier this month.  The NYT headline proclaimed, somewhat unceremoniously:  “Antipsychotic Use is Questioned for Combat Stress.”  And indeed, the actual study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), demonstrated that a six-month trial of risperidone did not improve patients’ scores in a scale of PTSD symptoms, when compared to placebo.

But almost simultaneously, another paper was published in the online journal BMC Psychiatry, stating that Abilify—a different atypical antipsychotic—actually did help patients with “military-related PTSD with major depression.”

So what are we to conclude?  Even though there are some key differences between the studies (which I’ll mention below), a brief survey of the headlines might leave the impression that the two reports “cancel each other out.”  In reality, I think it’s safe to say that neither study contributes very much to our treatment of PTSD.  But it’s not because of the equivocal results.  Instead, it’s a consequence of the premises upon which the two studies were based.

PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is an incredibly complicated condition.  The diagnosis was first given to Vietnam veterans who, for years after their service, experienced symptoms of increased physiological arousal, avoidance of stimuli associated with their wartime experience, and continual re-experiencing (in the form of nightmares or flashbacks) of the trauma they experienced or observed.  It’s essentially a re-formulation of conditions that were, in earlier years, labeled “shell shock” or “combat fatigue.”

Since the introduction of this disorder in 1980 (in DSM-III), the diagnostic umbrella of PTSD has grown to include victims of sexual and physical abuse, traumatic accidents, natural disasters, terrorist attacks (like the September 11 massacre), and other criminal acts.  Some have even argued that poverty or unfortunate psychosocial circumstances may also qualify as the “traumatic” event.

Not only are the types of stressors that cause PTSD widely variable, but so are the symptoms that ultimately develop.  Some patients complain of minor but persistent symptoms, while others experience infrequent but intense exacerbations.  Similarly, the neurobiology of PTSD is still poorly understood, and may vary from person to person.  And we’ve only just begun to understand protective factors for PTSD, such as the concept of “resilience.”

Does it even make sense to say that one drug can (or cannot) treat such a complex disorder?  Take, for instance, the scale used in the JAMA article to measure patients’ PTSD symptoms.  The PTSD score they used as the outcome measure was the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale, or CAPS, considered the “gold standard” for PTSD diagnosis.  But the CAPS includes 30 items, ranging from sleep disturbances to concentration difficulties to “survivor guilt”:

It doesn’t take a cognitive psychologist or neuroscientist to recognize that these 30 domains—all features of what we consider “clinical” PTSD—could be explained by just as many, if not more, neural pathways, and may be experienced in entirely different ways, depending upon on one’s psychological makeup and the nature of one’s past trauma.

In other words, saying that Risperdal is “not effective” for PTSD is like saying that acupuncture is not effective for chronic pain, or that a low-carb diet is not an effective way to lose weight.  Statistically speaking, these interventions might not help most patients, but in some, they may indeed play a crucial role.  We just don’t understand the disorders well enough.

[By the way, what about the other study, which reported that Abilify was helpful?  Well, this study was a retrospective review of patients who were prescribed Abilify, not a randomized, placebo-controlled trial.  And it did not use the CAPS, but the PCL-M, a shorter survey of PTSD symptoms.  Moreover, it only included 27 of the 123 veterans who agreed to take Abilify, and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why the other 96 were excluded from their analysis.]

Anyway, the bottom line is this:  PTSD is a complicated, multifaceted disorder—probably a combination of disorders, similar to much of what we see in psychiatry.  To say that one medication “works” or another “doesn’t work” oversimplifies the condition almost to the point of absurdity.  And for the New York Times to publicize such a finding, only gives more credence to the misconception that a prescription medication is (or has the potential to be) the treatment of choice for all patients with a given diagnosis.

What we need is not another drug trial for PTSD, but rather a better understanding of the psychological and neurobiological underpinnings of the disease, a comprehensive analysis of which symptoms respond to which drug, which aspects of the disorder are not amenable to medication management, and how individuals differ in their experience of the disorder and in the tools (pharmacological and otherwise) they can use to overcome their despair.  Anything else is a failure to recognize the human aspects of the disease, and an issuance of false hope to those who suffer.


Psychiatry, Homeostasis, and Regression to the Mean

July 20, 2011

Are atypical antipsychotics overprescibed?  This question was raised in a recent article on the Al Jazeera English website, and has been debated back and forth for quite some time on various blogs, including this one.  Not surprisingly, their conclusion was that, yes, these medications are indeed overused—and, moreover, that the pharmaceutical industry is responsible for getting patients “hooked” on these drugs via inappropriate advertising and off-label promotion of these agents.

However, I don’t know if this is an entirely fair characterization.

First of all, let’s just be up front with what should be obvious.  Pharmaceutical companies are businesses.  They’re not interested in human health or disease, except insofar as they can exploit people’s fears of disease (sometimes legitimately, sometimes not) to make money.  Anyone who believes that a publicly traded drugmaker might forego their bottom line to treat malaria in Africa “because it’s the right thing to do” is sorely mistaken.  The mission of companies like AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and BMS is to get doctors to prescribe as much Seroquel, Geodon, and Abilify (respectively) as possible.  Period.

In reality, pharmaceutical company revenues would be zero if doctors (OK, and nurse practitioners and—at least in some states—psychologists) didn’t prescribe their drugs.  So it’s doctors who have made antipsychotics one of the most prescribed classes of drugs in America, not the drug companies.  Why is this?  Has there been an epidemic of schizophrenia?  (NB:  most cases of schizophrenia do not fully respond to these drugs.)  Are we particularly susceptible to drug marketing?  Do we believe in the clear and indisputable efficacy of these drugs in the many psychiatric conditions for which they’ve been approved (and those for which they haven’t)?

No, I like to think of it instead as our collective failure to appreciate that patients are more resilient and adaptive than we give them credit for, not to mention our infatuation with the concept of biological psychiatry.  In fact, much of what we attribute to our drugs may in fact be the result of something else entirely.

For an example of what I mean, take a look at the following figure:

This figure has nothing to do with psychiatry.  It shows the average body temperature of two groups of patients with fever—one who received intravenous Tylenol, and the other who received an intravenous placebo.  As you can easily see, Tylenol cut the fever short by a good 30-60 minutes.  But both groups of patients eventually reestablished a normal body temperature.

This is a concept called homeostasis.  It’s the innate ability of a living creature to keep things constant.  When you have a fever, you naturally perspire to give off heat.  When you have an infection, you naturally mobilize your immune system to fight it.  (BTW, prescribing antibiotics for viral respiratory infections is wasteful:  the illness resolves itself “naturally” but the use of a drug leads us to believe that the drug is responsible.)  When you’re sad and hopeless, lethargic and fatigued, you naturally engage in activities to pull yourself out of this “rut.”  All too often, when we doctors see these symptoms, we jump at a diagnosis and a treatment, neglecting the very real human capacity—evolutionarily programmed!!—to naturally overcome these transient blows to our psychological stability and well-being.

There’s another concept—this one from statistics—that we often fail to recognize.  It’s called “regression to the mean.”  If I survey a large number of people on some state of their psychological function (such as mood, or irritability, or distractibility, or anxiety, etc), those with an extreme score on their first evaluation will most likely have a more “normal” score on their next evaluation, and vice versa, even in the absence of any intervention.  In other words, if you’re having a particularly bad day today, you’re more likely to be having a better day the next time I see you.

This is perhaps the best argument for why it takes multiple sessions with a patient—or, at the very least, a very thorough psychiatric history—to make a confident psychiatric diagnosis and to follow response to treatment.  Symptoms—especially mild ones—come and go.  But in our rush to judgment (not to mention the pressures of modern medicine to determine a diagnosis ASAP for billing purposes), endorsement of a few symptoms is often sufficient to justify the prescription of a drug.

Homeostasis and regression to the mean are not the same.  One is a biological process, one is due to natural, semi-random variation.  But both of these concepts should be considered as explanations for our patients “getting better.”  When these changes occur in the context of taking a medication (particularly one like an atypical antipsychotic, with so many uses for multiple nonspecific diagnoses), we like to think the medication is doing the trick, when the clinical response may be due to something else altogether.

Al Jazeera was right: the pharmaceutical companies have done a fantastic job in placing atypical antipsychotics into every psychiatrist’s armamentarium.  And yes, we use them, and people improve.  The point, though, is that the two are sometimes not connected.  Until and unless we find some way to recognize this—and figure out what really works—Big Pharma will continue smiling all the way to the bank.


Another Day, Another Seroquel XR Indication?

June 1, 2011

Just when you thought the antipsychotic drug Seroquel had fully penetrated doctors’ offices and patients’ medicine chests (not to mention law offices and children’s tummies) all across America, a new clinical trial is recruiting subjects for yet another indication for this ubiquitous drug.

Technically, the trial is of Seroquel XR, not Seroquel.  (Because, you know, the two are COMPLETELY different drugs, as described in this YouTube video.)  But you get the idea.  Anything to keep the money flowing for Astra-Zeneca, especially after Seroquel goes generic in 2012.

Thanks to a tip from Stephany at Soulful Sepulcher, you can read all the details of this study here.  It’s called the “Quietude Study,” a trial of Seroquel XR for the treatment of agitated depression.  Specifically, they want to compare Seroquel XR (at doses up to 150 or 300 mg/day) with Lexapro (up to 20 mg/day), and the investigators predict that Seroquel XR will be more effective in the management of depression “with prominent agitation.”

Two things caught my eye right away:  First, the name of the study (“Quietude”) is obviously a play on words, since the generic name for Seroquel is quetiapine.  How cute.  I also noticed that the study is being conducted by Roger McIntyre, MD, whom I saw just yesterday on the medical website QuantiaMD giving a blatantly obvious “infomercial” for Geodon (for Quantia members, here’s the link), a competitor’s drug.  [And for more info on QuantiaMD, see Daniel Carlat’s recent post about this site.])

But let’s get more substantive, shall we?  A look at the details of this new “Quietude” study is revealing.  For one thing, the opening statement of the study’s “Purpose” is:  “Most individuals with major depressive disorder manifest clinically significant agitation.”  Really?  I’ve certainly seen cases of agitated depression, but are “most” depressed patients agitated?  Not in my experience.  Maybe when they say “agitation” they’re including patients with akathisia, an occasional side effect of some antidepressant medication.  I understand research proposals always have to start with a statement about how widespread the problem is, but this one seems a bit of a stretch.

The inclusion and exclusion criteria are also included in the study design.  One of the inclusion criteria, along with the typical symptomatic measures (i.e., HAM-D >20 and CGI-S >4), is “significant agitation.”  That’s it.  By whose measure?  Patient report?  Clinician’s evaluation?  I’d really like to know more about how the “agitated” folks are going to be selected.

Some interesting exclusion criteria are (a) “known lack of antidepressant response to escitalopram [Lexapro]” and (b) “known lack of antidepressant response to quetiapine [Seroquel].”  So they’re enriching their population for individuals who have not already tried Lexapro or Seroquel and failed to respond to the antidepressant effect. Perhaps this isn’t a huge problem, but Seroquel XR is not the greatest antidepressant (see below), and this exclusion criterion will probably weed out the patients who gained weight on Seroquel or “felt like a zombie”—two common complaints with this medication which often lead to its discontinuation.

But what disturbs me the most about this trial is the fact that it seems entirely unnecessary.  The fact of the matter is that Seroquel XR is–for better or for worse—already used for many cases of “agitated depression.”  And it’s not even entirely off-label, because Seroquel XR is approved for bipolar depression and for the adjunctive treatment of MDD (whether it actually works as an antidepressant is another story).  As mentioned above, quetiapine is a sedating drug in many patients, so of course a psychiatrist is going to think about it for “agitated depression.”  (Unless he/she wants to take the time to determine the causes of the patient’s agitation, which, unfortunately, often does not happen.)

But there’s more.  When Seroquel XR was first introduced, with much fanfare, for the treatment of depression, I remember being somewhat skeptical and asking my local AstraZeneca sales force whether it had any “antidepressant effect” other than its well-known sedative and appetite-enhancing effects (because, after all, those are two of the symptoms of depression typically measured in clinical trials).  I was reassured that, no, no, Seroquel XR is more than that; it acts on all depressive symptoms, probably through its metabolite norquetiapine.

In fact, a year ago I emailed a local “key opinion leader” who spoke extensively for AstraZeneca and was told the following (emphasis added; BTW, if it’s too technical for you, don’t worry, go ahead and skip):

I think the concept is that quetapine at low doses (25-50-100 mg) is almost entirely anti-histaminergic and anti-muscarinic. However at the 150-300 mg doses there is significant norepinephrine transporter inhibition from the metabolite norquetapine as well as 5HT 1A agonism and 5HT2A AND 5HT2-C antagonism which all increase dopamine. Thus at the higher doses of 150-300 mg there is significant antidepressant activity but also increases in frontal, limbic and striatal dopamine which can be stimulatory (as well as having anti-depressant effects). At the 600-800 mg doses there is significant D-2 antagonism which is where the antipsychotic effect (D-2 antagonism) kicks in. Thus as the doses escalate patients go from pure sedation to antidepressant to antipsychotic effects.  At least this is the theory based on the dose related relative strength and affinities for its respective receptors.

The premise of the “Quietude” study seems to be telling us something different—even though it’s what we already knew if we only paid attention to what our patients tell us (and not necessarily to AstraZeneca): namely, that the primary advantage of intermediate-dose Seroquel XR does seem to be its sedative effect.  And this might indeed make it effective for the treatment of the “psychological and physical restlessness” associated with depression.

Anyway, because the trial is only being run in Canadian sites, I won’t have to worry about whether to refer my patients to it.  But it’s also a trial whose results I won’t exactly be anxiously awaiting.


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