Wonder Drug Could Provide Protection Against Depression


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A new study from the University of Oxford revealed that patients taking statins had reduced negative emotional bias.

Statins have been linked with reduced negative emotional bias

With 17.3 million adult Americans affected, depression is one of the most prevalent mental disorders in the country. A gloomy or depressed mood that lasts for two weeks or more is considered major depression.

Depression is distinct from common mood swings and brief emotional reactions to problems in daily life. Depression may develop into a serious medical condition, particularly if it is recurring and of moderate to severe intensity. The afflicted individual may experience severe suffering and perform badly at work, in school, and with family. In the worst cases, depression might result in suicide.

Since its introduction in the late 1980s to prevent heart attack and stroke, statins have been hailed as a wonder drug and prescribed to tens of millions of individuals. However, some research has suggested that the medications may still have other benefits, particularly those for mental health. A recent study investigates the impact of statins on the emotional bias, a risk factor for depression. The study appears in Biological Psychiatry and was published by Elsevier.

The online observational study was carried out between April 2020 and February 2021 by a team of researchers at the University of Oxford in Oxford, UK, under the direction of Amy Gillespie, Ph.D. At this time, the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic was at its peak, and there was a significant increase in the prevalence of psychiatric disorders as well as worldwide stress levels.

More than 2000 participants in the UK kept records of their current psychiatric symptoms, medications, and other aspects of their way of life. In order to assess memory, reward, and emotion processing—all of which are connected to depression vulnerability—they also completed cognitive activities. In one experiment, participants had to determine the emotional state of faces that expressed various levels of dread, happiness, sorrow, disgust, anger, or terror.

The vast majority of subjects (84%) were not taking either medication, but a small group were either taking only statins (4%), only a different class of anti-hypertension medication (6%), or both (5%).

Participants taking statins were less likely to recognize fearful or angry faces and more likely to report them as positive, indicating they had reduced negative emotional bias.

Dr. Gillespie said, “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.”

“We know that reducing negative emotional bias can be important for the treatment of depression,” said Dr. Gillespie. “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. Our findings also provide the first potential psychological explanation of statins’ mental health benefits,” in that they seem to affect emotion processing. It remains unclear exactly how statins could protect against mental illness, but one possibility is that they may work through anti-inflammatory mechanisms, which have also been implicated in depression.

John Krystal, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, said of the work, “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.”

“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 concluded.

Reference: “Associations Between Statin Use and Negative Affective Bias During COVID-19: An Observational, Longitudinal UK Study Investigating Depression Vulnerability” by Amy L. Gillespie, Chloe Wigg, Indra Van Assche, Susannah E. Murphy and Catherine J. Harmer, 19 March 2022, Biological Psychiatry.
DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2022.03.009

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