Here's an example. "Lithium carbonate and valproate semisodium are both recommended as monotherapy for prevention of relapse in bipolar disorder, but are not individually fully effective in many patients. If combination therapy with both agents is better than monotherapy, many relapses and consequent disability could be avoided. We aimed to establish whether lithium plus valproate was better than monotherapy with either drug alone for relapse prevention in bipolar I disorder" (2).
For reasons of brevity, articles are worded so that certain assumptions are implied (implicit), while the main aim of the article can be stated explicitly.
What is the implicit assumption in this introduction?
It's this: Valproate (Depakote) and lithium are reasonably effective maintenance therapies. How do we know this? Because both drugs are recommended as monotherapy for the prevention of relapse in bipolar disorder.
Here is where it gets interesting (or pathetically sad). Lithium has over four decades of research supporting its efficacy. If we define a mood stabilizer as a drug that treats acute mania, acute depression, and prevents relapse into either mood episode, then lithium is the only drug on the market that meets those criteria (3). Valproate, on the other hand, has evidence to support its efficacy as an anti-manic agent. It meets only 1 out 3 criteria for a mood stabilizer.
"Then why is it recommended as a maintenance treatment?" Because of this study (4), which found that "divalproex...did not differ significantly from the placebo group in time to any mood episode."
If you are exceedingly sharp, you'll notice that it's a negative study. Yet valproate has managed to become a recommended monotherapy. To read more about this, check out this post (5).
This article, released online ahead of print, is known as the BALANCE study. (BALANCE is a backronym that stands for Bipolar Affective disorder Lithium/ANticonvulsant Evaluation). Here is the saddest fact of this study: Most of the mental effort that when into it was for creating the backronym. It goes down hill after that.
Here are the results: "For people with bipolar I disorder, for whom long-term therapy is clinically indicated, both combination therapy with lithium plus valproate and lithium monotherapy are more likely to prevent relapse than is valproate monotherapy. This benefit seems to be irrespective of baseline severity of illness and is maintained for up to 2 years. BALANCE could neither reliably confirm nor refute a benefit of combination therapy compared with lithium monotherapy."
It other words, lithium monotherapy or lithium with valproate adjunctive therapy is more effective at preventing relapse than valproate alone. The difference between lithium and the combination treatment was not statistically significant.
Here is where it gets really sad (6): "Welcome back lithium. After losing its luster because of concerns over potentially serious adverse effects, this drug is drawing increasing respect...This study, along with other recent research, goes a long way toward putting lithium back on top as the preferred treatment for bipolar disorder, said lead study author John R. Geddes, MD...We’ve got more evidence purporting the lithium efficacy, safety, and its antisuicidal effects than we’ve ever had before," Dr. Geddes told Medscape Psychiatry. "So don’t throw lithium away; it’s a highly effective treatment, and if people can tolerate it, then it’s worth trying."
"don't throw lithium away!?" Exactly, what study suggested that? Some of you might be thinking that atypicals have replaced lithium since they too are effective as anti-manic and maintenance treatments, but lithium's efficacy was compared to valproate, not an atypical.
In other words, lithium was more effective than a drug that is no more effective than placebo. Why is this a major finding? Why was this study done?
"Although the study could not confirm a benefit of the valproate-lithium combination therapy over lithium alone, its findings should challenge current clinical guidelines that recommend valproate monotherapy as a first-line option for long-term treatment of bipolar disorder."
There is one study, ONE! on maintenance treatment. It's NEGATIVE! That alone should have prevented valproate from becoming a first-line option.
Here is a special kind of stupid: "In an accompanying editorial (7), Rasmus W. Licht, MD, Mood Disorders Research Unit, Aarhus University Hospital, Risskov, Denmark, praised the BALANCE study, describing it as 'outstanding work' and 'an impressive example of international collaboration.'
He said that even without a placebo group*, the study 'confirms the long-term efficacy of lithium, not only for the prevention of mania but also for prevention of depression.'On the basis of the study’s results, 'the BALANCE group rightly challenges the recommendation by present clinical guidelines that valproate monotherapy is a first-line option for long-term treatment."
Make sure you read the above carefully. I highlighted the parts that celebrate acts of stupidity. This "outstanding work" took an "international collaboration" to "confirm the long-term efficacy of lithium," which "rightly challenge" clinical guidelines.
Lithium has been the most empirically supported bipolar drug to date. It's the only drug that meets all three defining criteria for a mood stabilizer. Valproate has proven efficacy as an anti-manic only. This study, along with the accompanying editorial, and subsequent press releases should not exist. This is just plain fucking stupid!
A few years ago, articles, based on data that has been around for 20 years, stated that that antidepressants were not as effective as initially stated.
Last year, research showed that vaccines didn't cause autism (even though no research showed that they did).
Now, research is showing us that lithium is effective (never disputed) when compared to a drug that was never shown to be effective.
This is science, telling us what we should already know!
* Just as a side note. The press releases for this study (8) are pushing the combination treatment as the preferred method of treatment. Here is my problem with that: I don't interpret these results as supporting polypharmacy as superior. Although there was a trend for the combination treatment over lithium alone, the difference was not statistically significant. Second, since valproate never had proven efficacy, I view it as an "active placebo," which could also explain the the better performance of the combination treatment. Sadly, the damage is done.
The BALANCE investigators and collaborators (2009). Lithium plus valproate combination therapy versus monotherapy for relapse prevention in bipolar I disorder (BALANCE): a randomised open-label trial The Lancent : doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(09)61828-6