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Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) in Clinical Trials in Depression

J Clin Psychiatry 2011;72(12):1577-1584
10.4088/JCP.10m06634

Objective: Randomized trials of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) treatment for depression have differed in outcome. Recent meta-analyses ascribe discrepancies to differential effects of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) versus docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and to diagnostic heterogeneity. This meta-analysis tests the hypothesis that EPA is the effective component in PUFA treatment of major depressive episodes.

Data Sources: PubMed/MeSH was searched for studies published in English from 1960 through June 2010 using the terms fish oils (MeSH) AND (depressive disorder [MeSH] OR bipolar depression) AND randomized controlled trial (publication type). The search was supplemented by manual bibliography review and examination of relevant review articles.

Study Selection: The search yielded 15 trials involving 916 participants. Studies were included if they had a prospective, randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study design; if depressive episode was the primary complaint (with or without comorbid medical conditions); if omega-3 PUFA supplements were administered; and if appropriate outcome measures were used to assess depressed mood.

Data Extraction: Extracted data included study design, sample sizes, doses and percentages of EPA and DHA, mean ages, baseline and endpoint depression ratings and standard deviations for PUFA and placebo groups, and P values. The clinical outcome of interest was the standardized mean difference in the change from baseline to endpoint scores on a depression rating scale in subjects taking PUFA supplements versus subjects taking placebo.

Data Synthesis: In a mixed-effect model, percentage of EPA in the supplements was the fixed-effect predictor, dichotomized into 2 groups: EPA < 60% or EPA 60% of the total EPA + DHA. Secondary analyses explored the relevance of treatment duration, age, and EPA dose.

Results: Supplements with EPA 60% showed benefit on standardized mean depression scores (effect size = 0.532; 95% CI, 0.277–0.733; t = 4.195; P < .001) versus supplements with EPA < 60% (effect size = −0.026; 95% CI, −0.200 to 0.148; t = −0.316; P = .756), with negligible contribution of random effects or heteroscedasticity and with no effects of treatment duration or age. Supplements with EPA < 60% were ineffective. Exploratory analyses supported a nonlinear model, with improvement determined by the dose of EPA in excess of DHA, within the range of 200 to 2,200 mg/d of EPA.

Conclusions: Supplements containing EPA 60% of total EPA + DHA, in a dose range of 200 to 2,200 mg/d of EPA in excess of DHA, were effective against primary depression. Translational studies are needed to determine the mechanisms of EPA’s therapeutic benefit.

J Clin Psychiatry

Submitted: October 13, 2010; accepted December 16, 2010.

Online ahead of print: September 6, 2011 (doi:10.4088/JCP.10m06634).

Corresponding author: M. Elizabeth Sublette, MD, PhD, New York State Psychiatric Institute, 1051 Riverside Drive, Unit 42, New York, NY 10032 (es2316@columbia.edu).