A Machine Learning Approach to Identifying Placebo Responders in Late-Life Depression Trials

Sigal Zilcha-Mano, Steven P. Roose, Patrick J. Brown, Bret R. Rutherford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: Despite efforts to identify characteristics associated with medication–placebo differences in antidepressant trials, few consistent findings have emerged to guide participant selection in drug development settings and differential therapeutics in clinical practice. Limitations in the methodologies used, particularly searching for a single moderator while treating all other variables as noise, may partially explain the failure to generate consistent results. The present study tested whether interactions between pretreatment patient characteristics, rather than a single-variable solution, may better predict who is most likely to benefit from placebo versus medication. Methods: Data were analyzed from 174 patients aged 75 years and older with unipolar depression who were randomly assigned to citalopram or placebo. Model-based recursive partitioning analysis was conducted to identify the most robust significant moderators of placebo versus citalopram response. Results: The greatest signal detection between medication and placebo in favor of medication was among patients with fewer years of education (≤12) who suffered from a longer duration of depression since their first episode (>3.47 years) (B = 2.53, t(32) = 3.01, p = 0.004). Compared with medication, placebo had the greatest response for those who were more educated (>12 years), to the point where placebo almost outperformed medication (B = −0.57, t(96) = −1.90, p = 0.06). Conclusion: Machine learning approaches capable of evaluating the contributions of multiple predictor variables may be a promising methodology for identifying placebo versus medication responders. Duration of depression and education should be considered in the efforts to modulate placebo magnitude in drug development settings and in clinical practice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)669-677
Number of pages9
JournalAmerican Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry


  • Placebo effect
  • depression
  • personalized medicine
  • placebo responders
  • treatment moderators

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geriatrics and Gerontology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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