Sidebar: new trial should lead to better understanding of why exercise is an effective treatment for depression

DURHAM, N.C. -- The Duke University Medical Center researchers who found evidence that exercise can be an effective treatment for major depression are embarking on a larger trial they believe will answer some of the remaining questions posed by their earlier results.

The new trial, which is being funded by a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, is designed to further refine which depressed patients can benefit from exercise and determine why exercise appears to be effective. Additionally, the study will measure the effect of exercise on a phenomenon known as vascular depression, a form of depression that appears linked to actual abnormalities in blood vessels of the brain, and not brain chemical imbalances. The previous Duke studies, led by psychologist James Blumenthal, found that exercise was just as effective as the most common anti-depressive medication in reducing the symptoms of major depression.

"This new trial is intended to answer some of the whys' posed by those original studies," Blumenthal explained. "We are very interested in evaluating behavioral, non-pharmacologic approaches to treating depression. Because up to one-third of depressed patients may not respond to drug therapy, and those who do take drugs may complain of side effects, it is important to find other approaches."

Over the next five years, the researchers plan to enroll 216 volunteers, half of whom will be assigned randomly to the drug arm of the trial and half to the exercise arm. The drug to be used is sertraline (trade name Zoloft), a member of a class of commonly used anti-depressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and the same drug used in the earlier trials.

Unlike the earlier trials, the new trial will have a placebo, or ineffective sugar pill, arm. Also unlike the earlier trials, the exercise arm will be divided as well -- half of the patients will do thei

Contact: Richard Merritt
Duke University Medical Center

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