Statins — drugs that reduce high cholesterol — have been around for over four decades. (Common brands include Lipitor, Lescol XL, and Altoprev.) But only recently have scientists discovered another potential use for them: A new study suggests that these drugs offer some protection against depression.
The study was published in in Biological Psychiatry, and it was conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford in Oxford, UK. It took place from April 2020 through February 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is important because cases of depression and other psychiatric disorders spiked at the time. Within this context, researchers wanted to know whether statins had any effect on depression risk.
A Closer Look at the Study
At the beginning of the study, the researchers had 2,043 adult volunteers complete a health questionnaire. The questions asked participants about their psychiatric symptoms, medications, and other lifestyle details. About 84 percent of the participants were not taking any drugs for cholesterol or hypertension (high blood pressure). About 4 percent were taking statins, 6 percent were on other drugs for hypertension, and 5 percent were taking both.
In addition, the volunteers completed online cognitive tests. The tests assessed memory, reward, and emotion processing areas of the brain. The reason? All three of these factors can help determine a person’s likelihood of developing depression.
One task in particular had volunteers identify the emotional expressions on the faces of strangers. The faces exhibited varying degrees of fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, and anger.
Interestingly, volunteers who took statins were less likely to recognize fearful or angry faces, instead reporting them as positive. This suggests that they had a lower negative emotional bias than other participants. (A negativity bias happens when negative experiences affect a person’s psychological state more than positive ones.)
Some participants who weren’t on statins did not correctly recognize happy faces as positive, and instead reported them as negative. These participants had a higher negative emotional bias. And 10 months after the study, these volunteers were also more likely to develop depression and anxiety.
Why Statins Might Have Mental Health Benefits
Researchers don’t yet know why statins could have a protective effect against depression. However, they theorize that statins reduce inflammation in the brain and nervous system. Stress and certain biases (like seeing neutral faces as angry or sad) are linked to higher levels of inflammation. So, a reduction of inflammation could reduce biases like these.
A few grains of salt: The number of participants on statins was low. Another study using more volunteers on statins could yield different results. Also, the researchers had to rely on self-reported data from the participants. The team did take several steps to reduce the chance of false reports, but such reports still could have skewed data.
Nonetheless, the study is promising. “We know that reducing negative emotional bias can be important for the treatment of depression,” said Amy Gillespie, PhD, lead researcher. “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.” In other words, the fact that statins may have had a positive effect during a time as challenging as the pandemic is impressive.
Does this mean that doctors may eventually prescribe statins for depression? Not any time soon — they could harm a person’s cholesterol and blood pressure levels if they are healthy. But if you are currently on statins, it’s good to know that they may have more than one benefit.