Study On Viagra For Depressed Women Scrutinized

A new study suggests that Viagra may help women who experience sexual dysfunction as a side effect of drug treatment for depression. Some researchers doubt the study's findings and say more work needs to be done.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos. A popular drug for men may help some women. There's new research suggesting that Viagra may help women deal with one of the more difficult side effects of antidepressants - diminished sexual function. But even some of the researchers caution that more study is needed. NPR's Joanne Silberner reports.

JOANNE SILBERNER: How many women being treated for depression lose some or all sexual functioning depends on whom you ask - some experts say 40 percent of women on drugs like Zoloft or Prozac or Effexor. Some say 60 percent. Some say even more.

Julia Heiman, who heads the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, points out one thing that almost everyone agrees on. It's about what some women on antidepressants do if they have the side effect.

Dr. JULIA HEIMAN (Kinsey Institute, Indiana University): They may stop taking their medication and that maybe a serious outcome for them.

SILBERNER: Their depression may come back. Heiman is one of the authors of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. With funding by the manufacturer of Viagra, she and other researchers monitored 98 women with depression relieved by antidepressants but who had sexual dysfunction. Half took Viagra.

Dr. HEIMAN: It seemed important to pay attention to sexual side effects and see whether or not this could be one method of helping alleviate them, at least for a subgroup of these women.

SILBERNER: There are reasons to think Viagra would not help. A large study failed to show any benefit in women who weren't depressed but who had sexual dysfunction. In fact, manufacturer Pfizer withdrew an application to the Food and Drug Administration to market the drug to women. To Heiman the new study is more promising.

Dr. HEIMAN: What the study found is that the majority of women showed improvement in their sexual functioning. What that means is on a combined measure of how well they were doing sexually, they improved a lot in their overall response and enjoyment of sex.

SILBERNER: But other researchers have their doubts. Psychiatrist Richard Balon is with Wayne State University.

Dr. RICHARD BALON (Wayne State University): I just think it's an important study and it's important to do studies like this. But the results are not very impressive.

SILBERNER: He's got two problems.

Dr. BALON: Number one, the number of patients in this study is relatively small. And number two, even though it is statistically significant, the question is whether it is clinically significant.

SILBERNER: That is, could the women tell the difference? Study co-author Heiman said the effect was enough for women to notice, but she agrees that more work needs to be done.

Dr. HEIMAN: This study certainly doesn't answer all questions. And frankly, it should be replicated. It's not that - this study makes no claims to be in any way the final word. It's just a word and maybe a comment that needs to be made for women for whom both feeling better from their depressive symptoms is important, but so is the way in which sexuality fits into their lives.

SILBERNER: In a statement, Viagra manufacturer Pfizer said the drug is licensed only for use in men, and it has no plans to renew its efforts to earn approval to market Viagra for women.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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