STAR*D is one of the largest, independent and most robust studies ever undertaken by the National Institute of Mental Health to examine the effectiveness of a variety of medications in the treatment of depression. It is considered one of the “gold standards” in the world of treatment research for depression and came to a number of important (and in some cases, surprising) conclusions about depression medication treatment.
The conclusions from the Sequenced Treatment Alternatives to Relieve Depression (STAR*D) study were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry on November 1, 2006. An overall assessment of the nation’s largest real-world study of treatment-resistant depression suggests that a patient with persistent depression can get well after trying several treatment strategies, but his or her odds of beating the depression diminish as additional treatment strategies are needed. Below you will find commonly asked questions and their answers about this ground-breaking study.
1. What were the goals of the STAR*D trial?
A. The overall goal of the STAR*D trial was to assess the effectiveness of depression treatments in patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder, in both primary and specialty care settings. It is the largest and longest study ever conducted to evaluate depression treatment.
Each of the four levels of the study tested a different medication or medication combination. The primary goal of each level was to determine if the treatment used during that level could adequately treat participants’ major depressive disorder (MDD). Those who did not become symptom-free could proceed to the next level of treatment.
The design of the STAR*D study reflects what is done in clinical practice because it allowed study participants to choose certain treatment strategies most acceptable to them and limited the randomization of each participant only to his/her range of acceptable treatment strategies. No prior studies have evaluated the different treatment strategies in broadly defined participant groups treated in diverse care settings.
2. Who participated in the study?
A. Over a seven-year period, the study enrolled 4,041 outpatients, ages 18-75 years, from 41 clinical sites around the country, which included both specialty care settings and primary medical care settings. Participants represented a broad range of ethnic and socioeconomic groups. All participants were diagnosed with MDD and were already seeking care at one of these sites. No media advertisements were used to recruit participants. Instead, they were referred to the trial by their doctors.
So that results could be generalized to a broad group of real-world patients, most adults with MDD were eligible. People were not eligible for the study if they had not tolerated or did not get well with one or more of the treatments that were part of the first two STAR*D treatment steps, or if a STAR*D treatment could not be safely used because of another medical condition or because they were taking certain other medications. In addition, people with substance abuse disorders that required detoxification, anorexia or bulimia, or obsessive compulsive disorder were not eligible for the study because they required treatments that were not part of STAR*D.
Of the initial 4,041 participants, 1,165 were excluded because they either did not meet the study requirements of having “at least moderate” depression (based on a rating scale used in the study) or they chose not to participate. Thus, 2,876 “evaluable” people were included in level 1 results. Level 2 results include 1,439 people who did not become symptom-free in level 1 and chose to continue. Level 3 results include 377 people, and Level 4 results include 142 people.
3. What were the treatments used in the study?
A. In level 1, participants were given the antidepressant citalopram (Celexa) for 12 to 14 weeks. Those who became symptom-free during this time could move on to a 12-month follow-up period during which the citalopram was continued, and patients were monitored. Those who experienced intolerable side effects or did not become symptom-free during this level could go on to level 2.
Citalopram is representative of the class of antidepressant medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). It was chosen as the first treatment because it generally is not associated with troublesome withdrawal symptoms when it is stopped, is easy to administer (once a day), and has been shown to be safe for older adults and medically fragile patients. It does not appear to interact unfavorably with other medications that some participants may have been taking for other medical problems.
Level 2 was designed to help determine an appropriate next treatment step if the first step did not work. Thus, in level 2, participants had the option of switching to a different medication or adding on to their existing citalopram.
Those who joined the “switch” group were randomly assigned to either sertraline (Zoloft), bupropion-SR (Wellbutrin), or venlafaxine-XR (Effexor). These medications were chosen for comparison because they represent three different types of medications. Sertraline is an SSRI, the same class as the citalopram used in level 1. Bupropion belongs to another class of antidepressant medications that work on different neurotransmitters than SSRIs. Venlafaxine is a “dual-action” medication that works on two neurotransmitters at the same time.
Those who joined the “add-on” group were prescribed either the non-SSRI antidepressant bupropion-SR (Wellbutrin), or buspirone (BuSpar), which is not an antidepressant but enhances the action of an antidepressant medication. Participants could also switch to, or add on, cognitive psychotherapy.
As in level 1, those who became symptom-free with their level 2 treatment could continue with that treatment and entered the follow-up period. Those who did not become symptom-free, or who experienced intolerable side effects, could continue on to level 3.
In level 3, which like level 2 was designed to compare medications that are thought to work differently in the brain and produce different results, participants again had the option of either switching to a different medication or adding on to their existing medication. Those who chose to switch their medication were randomly assigned to either mirtazapine (Remeron) — a different type of antidepressant — or to nortriptyline (Aventyl or Pamelor) — a tricyclic antidepressant — for up to 14 weeks. Both work differently in the brain than the SSRIs and other medications used in levels 1 and 2.
In the level 3 add-on group, participants were randomly prescribed either lithium — a mood stabilizer commonly used to treat bipolar disorder — or triiodothyronine (T3) — a medication commonly used to treat thyroid conditions — to add to the medication they were already taking. These medications were chosen because they have been shown to boost the effectiveness of antidepressant medications.
In level 4, participants who had not become symptom-free in any of the previous levels (and therefore considered to have highly treatment-resistant depression) were taken off all other medications and randomly switched to one of two treatments — the monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) tranylcypromine (Parnate) or the combination of venlafaxine extended release (Effexor XR) with mirtazapine (Remeron). These treatments were chosen for comparison because previous research had suggested that they may be particularly effective in people who had not received sufficient benefit from other medications.
4. How were participant’s doses decided and how was their progress measured?
A. To ensure that every participant had the best chance of recovery with each treatment strategy, a systematic approach called measurement-based care was used. This method requires routine, consistent measurement of symptoms and side effects at each treatment visit with easy-to-use measurement tools. It also involves the use of a treatment manual that describes when and how to modify medication doses and dose adjustments to best tailor them for individual participants so as to minimize side effects, maximize safety, and provide the best chance of therapeutic benefit. This enabled STAR*D practitioners to provide consistent, high-quality care.
STAR*D employed easy-to-use rating tools of symptoms and side effects in a systematic and consistent way. These tools can readily be incorporated into real-world medical and psychiatric settings. Use of this measurement-based care may have caused greater than expected remission rates.
Patients were asked to self-rate their symptoms. The study demonstrated that most depressed patients can quickly and easily self-rate their symptoms and estimate their side effect burden in a very short time. Their doctors can rely on these self-rated tools for accurate and useful information to make informed judgments about treatment. The patients can also use these tools to help manage their illness at home in much the same way that hypertensive patients can measure their own blood pressure.
For more information about the treatment manuals and rating forms used in the STAR*D study, all of which are available for use at no cost, see the STAR*D website.