Fewer side effect
Previous research showed that behavioral changes may be reduced when hydrocortisone is given alongside dexamethasone treatment. Annelienke van Hulst: 'In the DexaDagen-2 study, we investigated in 52 children with many side effects of dexamethasone whether hydrocortisone could really reduce them. If you want to investigate whether a drug works well, you always have to compare the drug (in this case hydrocortisone) with a placebo: a drug that looks the same but does not contain the active ingredient. Our study showed that hydrocortisone did not work better than placebo. We observed that the behavioral changes caused by dexamethasone decreased with both hydrocortisone and placebo.’
The results of the study were different than expected. One explanation for the results found may be the placebo effect. Placebo-effects are based on positive expectations: apparently it helps to actively do something we expect to help. Therefore, both hydrocortisone and placebo can have a positive effect in supporting children who experience many symptoms. Annelienke explains: 'Based on our research, we will give parents of children who suffer a lot from the side effects of dexamethasone the choice to use hydrocortisone or a placebo. This will be done after proper explanation of how a placebo works. People often think a placebo only works if you don’t know it's a placebo, but previous research has shown that it doesn't! Even if you know it, a placebo can be very effective. This is because the body is capable of automatically responding to the intake of a medication, even if there is no active ingredient in it. A positive expectation about its effectiveness enhances this automatic response.’
Take the edge off
The study also showed that twice as many children have many side effects from dexamethasone compared to our earlier similar study. Annelienke: ‘We suspect that more side effects are reported because there is more awareness and attention being paid to the potential side effects of dexamethasone. Expectations, information and previous experiences of parents and children can contribute enormously to the occurrence of side effects of a drug. This is also known as a nocebo-effect. By adjusting and streamlining information and communication about dexamethasone, we are trying to minimize the nocebo effect. At the Princess Máxima Center, professionals respond to both the placebo- and nocebo-effect. In this way, we hope to provide appropriate support to children who experience many symptoms during dexamethasone treatment. Annelienke van Hulst will receive her PhD (with multiple publications) on this topic next year. She summarizes the effect of her DexaDagen-2 study: 'We don't expect all the side effects of dexamethasone to suddenly disappear, but if the edges are taken off, a lot has already been gained for children and their parents.'