Progressive Staging of Pilot Studies to Improve Phase III Trials for Motor Interventions

Neurorehabil Neural Repair. Mar-Apr 2009;23(3):197-206. doi: 10.1177/1545968309331863.


Based on the suboptimal research pathways that finally led to multicenter randomized clinical trials (MRCTs) of treadmill training with partial body weight support and of robotic assistive devices, strategically planned successive stages are proposed for pilot studies of novel rehabilitation interventions. Stage 1, consideration-of-concept studies, drawn from animal experiments, theories, and observations, delineate the experimental intervention in a small convenience sample of participants, so the results must be interpreted with caution. Stage 2, development-of-concept pilots, should optimize the components of the intervention, settle on most appropriate outcome measures, and examine dose-response effects. A well-designed study that reveals no efficacy should be published to counterweight the confirmation bias of positive trials. Stage 3, demonstration-of-concept pilots, can build out from what has been learned to test at least 15 participants in each arm, using random assignment and blinded outcome measures. A control group should receive an active practice intervention aimed at the same primary outcome. A third arm could receive a substantially larger dose of the experimental therapy or a combinational intervention. If only 1 site performed this trial, a different investigative group should aim to reproduce positive outcomes based on the optimal dose of motor training. Stage 3 studies ought to suggest an effect size of 0.4 or higher, so that approximately 50 participants in each arm will be the number required to test for efficacy in a stage 4, proof-of-concept MRCT. By developing a consensus around acceptable and necessary practices for each stage, similar to CONSORT recommendations for the publication of phase III clinical trials, better quality pilot studies may move quickly into better designed and more successful MRCTs of experimental interventions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arm / physiopathology
  • Clinical Protocols / standards
  • Clinical Trials, Phase III as Topic / methods*
  • Clinical Trials, Phase III as Topic / standards
  • Exercise Test / methods*
  • Exercise Test / standards
  • Exercise Therapy / instrumentation
  • Exercise Therapy / methods
  • Exercise Therapy / standards
  • Humans
  • Paralysis / etiology
  • Paralysis / rehabilitation*
  • Paresis / etiology
  • Paresis / rehabilitation*
  • Pilot Projects*
  • Robotics / methods*
  • Robotics / standards