Cholesterol-fighting statins help ward off depression, study finds

PHILADELPHIA — Statins have been prescribed to tens of millions of cholesterol patients since their approval in the1980s to prevent heart attack and stroke. Decades later, a new study is suggesting statins may benefit patients’ mental health as well.

More specifically, the study assessed the potential impact of statin use on emotional bias, considered a marker for depression risk.

“We found that taking a statin medication was associated with significantly lower levels of negative emotional bias when interpreting facial expressions; this was not seen with other medications, such as blood pressure medications,” explains study leader Amy Gillespie, PhD, from the University of Oxford, in a media release.

“We know that reducing negative emotional bias can be important for the treatment of depression,” Dr. Gillespie continues. “Our findings are important as they provide evidence that statins may provide protection against depression. Of particular note, we saw these results during the high-stress context of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Study authors conducted this research using an online observational study held between April 2020 and February 2021. That time period was, of course, during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Global stress levels and the rate of psychiatric disorders increased noticeably during those months.

“Our findings also provide the first potential psychological explanation of statins’ mental health benefits,” the researcher says.

Dr. Gillespie adds that it remains unclear exactly how statins could protect against mental illness, but one possibility is that they may work through anti-inflammatory mechanisms, which scientists believe plays a role in depression as well.

Getting rid of negative emotional bias

Over 2,000 U.K. residents took part in this study, submitting information pertaining to their current psychiatric symptoms, medications, and other lifestyle factors. Each participant also underwent a series of cognitive tasks to assess memory, reward, and emotional processing — all of which have a link to depression risk.

One cognitive task in particular asked participants to identify the emotions displayed on various faces. The faces showed a variety of emotions to varying degrees, including fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, or anger.

While most participants weren’t taking any hypertension medications, small portions either took statins exclusively (4%), took a different class of anti-hypertension medication (6%), or took a combination of those drugs (5%).

Those taking statins were less likely to recognize faces as fearful or angry and more likely to see them as more positive – indicating a reduced negative emotional bias.

“Statins are among the most commonly prescribed medications based on their ability to prevent heart attacks and strokes. These new data raise the possibility that some of their positive effects on health could be mediated by the effects of these drugs on the brain that promote emotional resilience,” comments John Krystal, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

“Researchers should prioritize investigating the possible use of statins as a preventative intervention for depression. Before use in clinical practice, it is important that future research confirms the potential psychological benefits of statins through controlled, randomized clinical trials,” Dr. Gillespie concludes.

The study is published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

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