NIMH Sequenced Treatment Alternatives to Relieve Depression (STAR*D) Study — All Medication Levels
The NIMH-funded Sequenced Treatment Alternatives to Relieve Depression (STAR*D) Study was conducted to determine the effectiveness of different treatments for people with major depression who have not responded to initial treatment with an antidepressant. This is the largest and longest study ever conducted to evaluate depression treatment. This page provides information about the study.
What were the treatments used in the study?
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.
How were participant’s doses decided and how was their progress measured?
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.