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TIME takes cautious approach with probiotics and depression study


4 Star


How Probiotics May Help Depression

Our Review Summary

ulcerative colitis drugDepression and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are both common conditions in the US. Consequently, so any treatment that can effectively manage both conditions is an attractive one. This story about a new study looking at probiotics for depression does a good job identifying the strengths and limitations of the research, such as the small patient size and short duration of the study.

Readers get additional insights about the meaning and implications of the findings from an independent expert who was not associated with the study. This is particularly helpful in this instance since the research was funded by Nestle, and readers may be more likely to interpret the results with skepticism.

However, we think the story would have been stronger if it had dug into the measured benefits a bit more: How were symptoms measured–and by how much did they decrease?


Why This Matters

People hear a lot about probiotics and it’s important they be tested systematically and in controlled trials. It’s just as important that media coverage highlights the limitations of the trials–and this story did.



Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Readers aren’t given information about how much the probiotic might cost.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The story states that twice as many people in the probiotic group experienced a decrease in depression scores when compared to the placebo group (64% vs. 32%). However, readers aren’t told the magnitude of the decrease in depression scores (did their depression decrease a little bit or a whole lot?). This is important information to include as it speaks to the efficacy of the probiotic supplement as a potential treatment for depression. We also wanted to know more about how symptoms were measured, and if researchers used a clinically validated tool to do so.

For use of probiotics as a potential treatment for IBS, the story does discuss that no significant differences were found in improvement of symptoms between the groups.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?


The story states that no serious side effects of the probiotic were reported, and this is sufficient for Satisfactory rating.

Ideally it would have provided additional information about what would constitute a “serious” side effect. With the way the story is worded, it’s possible that other side effects were reported by study participants. This is important information to have in order to compare to other treatments for depression or IBS.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


The research study was a randomized controlled trial, which is considered the gold standard in study design, and the story does a good job of not overstating the research findings. It notes that the evidence is insufficient to recommend probiotics as a treatment for depression, and that larger independent trials are needed to confirm the findings.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


There is no disease mongering.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


There is a discussion early in the story that the research was funded by Nestle. The story also incorporates opinions from a research scientist who was not involved with the study who provides additional insights about the study’s findings.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


The story does address another type of probiotic, lactobacilli, noting that previous research has found the type of probiotic used in the current research, bifidobacteria, to be better at improving gastrointestinal symptoms.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


Although it appears close to the end, the story does state that the probiotic used in the study is not commercially available.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story does a good job of establishing where the true novelty of the research lies, which is in the study population used (individuals without IBS and depression or anxiety).

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


By incorporating perspectives from an independent expert, the story does a good job of not relying solely on a news release.

Total Score: 8 of 10 Satisfactory


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