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Antidepressant sertraline works ‘by reducing anxiety symptoms first’

Published on 20/09/19 at 10:21am

Researchers at University College London have found that a commonly prescribed antidepressant, sertraline, works in unexpected ways, first relieving users of anxiety and then having a smaller effect on depressive symptoms weeks later.

Their trial, utilising 653 UK patients involved half being administered sertraline while the other half were given a placebo.

In the study published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal, patients with mild-severe depressive symptoms, or anxiety, or a combination of both were selected from 179 GP surgeries in the UK and enrolled on the trial.

After six weeks, the patients taking sertraline reported a 21% greater improvement in anxiety symptoms compared to the control group taking a dummy pill. After 12 weeks, the gap was 23%.

There was however little evidence that the drug reduced depressive symptoms such as poor concentration, low mood and lack of enjoyment after six weeks; and only marginal improvements (13%) after 12 weeks.

Nevertheless, the group taking the antidepressant were twice as likely to say their mental health felt better overall than those taking placebo.

Currently speaking antidepressants are one of the most commonly-prescribed medications in the UK and concerns have been raised numerous times that far too many are being given out by doctors – however the results from this study would suggest that, due to their effectiveness, they are being prescribed correctly.

Professor Glyn Lewis, who was part of the study, said he was surprised by the results: “[Antidepressants] work, just in a different way than we had expected.

“We definitely need better treatments for depression, and more research but they are effective drugs.”

In the group taking sertraline, the researchers found that there was also little evidence of side-effects.

The trial is the largest placebo-controlled trial of an antidepressant which has not been funded by the pharmaceutical industry, said UCL researchers.

Nik Kiran

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