Greater Response to Placebo in Children Than in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis in Drug-Resistant Partial Epilepsy
(published in PLoS Medicine)
The researchers searched the literature for reports of RCTs on the effects of antiepileptic drugs in the add-on treatment of drug-resistant partial epilepsy in children and in adults—that is, trials that compared the effects of giving an additional antiepileptic drug with those of giving a placebo by asking what fraction of patients given each treatment had a 50% reduction in seizure frequency during the treatment period compared to a baseline period (the “50% responder rate”). This “systematic review” yielded 32 RCTs, including five pediatric RCTs. The researchers then compared the treatment effect (the ratio of the 50% responder rate in the treatment arm to the placebo arm) in the two age groups using a statistical approach called “meta-analysis” to pool the results of these studies. The treatment effect, they report, was significantly lower in children than in adults. Further analysis indicated that this difference was because more children than adults responded to the placebo. Nearly 1 in 5 children had a 50% reduction in seizure rate when given a placebo compared to only 1 in 10 adults. About a third of both children and adults had a 50% reduction in seizure rate when given antiepileptic drugs.
These findings, although limited by the small number of pediatric trials done so far, suggest that children with drug-resistant partial epilepsy respond more strongly in RCTs to placebo than adults. Although additional studies need to be done to find an explanation for this observation and to discover whether anything similar occurs in other conditions, this difference between children and adults should be taken into account in the design of future pediatric trials on the effects of antiepileptic drugs, and possibly drugs for other conditions. Specifically, to reduce the risk of false-negative results, this finding suggests that it might be necessary to increase the size of future pediatric trials to ensure that the trials have enough power to discover effects of the drugs tested, if they exist.
Of course, with open-label experiments, this should lead to false positives.
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