Certainty of genuine treatment increases drug responses among intellectually disabled patients

Neurology. 2017 May 16;88(20):1912-1918. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000003934. Epub 2017 Apr 19.


Objective: To determine the placebo component of treatment responses in patients with intellectual disability (ID).

Methods: A statistical meta-analysis comparing bias-corrected effect sizes (Hedges g) of drug responses in open-label vs placebo-controlled clinical trials was performed, as these trial types represent different certainty of receiving genuine treatment (100% vs 50%). Studies in fragile X, Down, Prader-Willi, and Williams syndrome published before June 2015 were considered.

Results: Seventeen open-label trials (n = 261, 65% male; mean age 23.6 years; mean trial duration 38 weeks) and 22 placebo-controlled trials (n = 721, 62% male; mean age 17.1 years; mean trial duration 35 weeks) were included. The overall effect size from pre to post treatment in open-label studies was g = 0.602 (p = 0.001). The effect of trial type was statistically significant (p = 0.001), and revealed higher effect sizes in studies with 100% likelihood of getting active drug, compared to both the drug and placebo arm of placebo-controlled trials. We thus provide evidence for genuine placebo effects, not explainable by natural history or regression toward the mean, among patients with ID.

Conclusions: Our data suggest that clinical trials in patients with severe cognitive deficits are influenced by the certainty of receiving genuine medication, and open-label design should thus not be used to evaluate the effect of pharmacologic treatments in ID, as the results will be biased by an enhanced placebo component.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Intellectual Disability / drug therapy*
  • Intellectual Disability / psychology*
  • Placebo Effect
  • Uncertainty