Statin medications that have been used by millions around the world for decades to reduce cholesterol may elicit previously unknown mental health benefits, with new research identifying that statins may protect against depression.
A study performed by a team at the University of Oxford has found that statin medications potentially reduce negative emotional bias, a marker for the risk of depression. The findings of the investigation may suggest that statins should be implemented as a preventative treatment for depression or help to develop novel drug options for mental health conditions.
The study is published in Biological Psychiatry.
What are statins?
Statin medications were introduced in the late 1980s as a miracle drug for lowering cholesterol. Statins effectively reduce the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the blood – otherwise known as “bad cholesterol” – which can cause the arteries to harden, become narrow and cause cardiovascular disease. Current estimates indicate that around 200 million people utilise statins globally to optimise their heart health.
Safeguarding from depression
To understand the impacts of statins on depression, the University of Oxford researchers performed an online observational study between April 2020 and February 2021, a period when the COVID-19 pandemic was most severe, resulting in heightened stress levels worldwide and a spike in the incidence of psychiatric disorders.
The study collected data from more than 2000 participants in the UK, who recorded information about their current psychiatric symptoms, medication use, and a range of other lifestyle factors. The individuals also participated in cognitive tests to assess their memory, reward, and emotion processing, which are associated with depression vulnerability. One of the tasks involved identifying emotional expressions in people’s faces that had varying degrees of happiness, fear, sadness, anger, or disgust.
84% of the participants were not taking medication, 4% were taking only statins, 6% were only taking a different type of anti-hypertension medication, and 5% were taking both. The results demonstrated that the people using the statin medications were less likely to recognise fearful of angry faces and more likely to report them as positive, meaning they had reduced negative emotional bias.
Amy Gillespie, PhD, the leader of the research at the University of Oxford, commented: “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. 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.”
Due to statin medications influencing emotional processing, it is still unknown their exact mechanisms that protect from mental illness, although it may be due to them affecting anti-inflammatory processes that are implicated in depression.
John Krystal, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, said: “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.”
Dr Gillespie concluded: “Researchers should prioritise 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, randomised clinical trials.”