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According to the cognitive neuropsychological model, antidepressants reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety by increasing positive relative to negative information processing. Most studies of whether antidepressants alter emotional processing use small samples of healthy individuals, which lead to low statistical power and selection bias and are difficult to generalise to clinical practice. We tested whether the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) sertraline altered recall of positive and negative information in a large randomised controlled trial (RCT) of patients with depressive symptoms recruited from primary care.
The PANDA trial was a pragmatic multicentre double-blind RCT comparing sertraline with placebo. Memory for personality descriptors was tested at baseline and 2 and 6 weeks after randomisation using a computerised emotional categorisation task followed by a free recall. We measured the number of positive and negative words correctly recalled (hits). Poisson mixed models were used to analyse longitudinal associations between treatment allocation and hits.
A total of 576 participants (88% of those randomised) completed the recall task at 2 and 6 weeks. We found no evidence that positive or negative hits differed according to treatment allocation at 2 or 6 weeks (adjusted positive hits ratio = 0.97, 95% CI 0.90–1.05, p = 0.52; adjusted negative hits ratio = 0.99, 95% CI 0.90–1.08, p = 0.76).
In the largest individual placebo-controlled trial of an antidepressant not funded by the pharmaceutical industry, we found no evidence that sertraline altered positive or negative recall early in treatment. These findings challenge some assumptions of the cognitive neuropsychological model of antidepressant action.
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