Statins may offer protection against depression – Neuroscience News

Summary: Statins reduced negative emotional biases in people with depression. The results suggest that statins may provide protection against depression.

Source: Elsevier

Statins have been hailed as a wonder drug; cholesterol-lowering drugs have been prescribed to tens of millions of people since their approval in the late 1980s to prevent heart attacks and strokes. But drugs may still have additional benefits, some research shows, including mental health.

Now, a new study examines the influence of statins on emotional prejudice, a marker of depression risk.

The study appears in Biological psychiatry.

Researchers led by Amy Gillespie, Ph.D., of the University of Oxford, Oxford, UK, conducted the online observational study from April 2020 to February 2021, at the height of the SARS pandemic -CoV-2, when global stress levels were high and the incidence of psychiatric disorders soared.

More than 2,000 participants in the UK recorded information about their current psychiatric symptoms, medications and other lifestyle factors. They also performed cognitive tasks intended to measure memory, reward and emotional processing, which are linked to vulnerability to depression.

One task asked participants to identify emotional facial expressions, which displayed varying degrees of fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, anger, or fear.

The vast majority of subjects (84%) were taking no medication, but a small group were taking only statins (4%), only another class of antihypertensive drugs (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 that they had reduced negative emotional biases.

Dr Gillespie said they “found that taking a statin drug was associated with significantly lower levels of negative emotional bias when interpreting facial expressions; this was not observed with other medications, such as blood pressure medications.

“We know that reducing negative emotional bias can be important for treating depression,” Dr. Gillespie said.

“Our findings are important because they provide evidence that statins can provide protection against depression. Of particular note, we saw these results in the high-stress context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our findings also provide the first potential psychological explanation for the mental health benefits of statins, in that they appear to affect the processing of emotions.

Participants taking statins were less likely to recognize fearful or angry faces and more likely to report them as positive, indicating that they had reduced negative emotional biases. Image is in public domain

It’s unclear exactly how statins might protect against mental illness, but one possibility is that they act through anti-inflammatory mechanisms, which have also been implicated in depression.

John Krystal, MD, editor of Biological psychiatry, said of this work: “Statins are among the most commonly prescribed drugs because of their ability to prevent heart attacks and strokes. These new data raise the possibility that some of their positive health effects could be mediated by the effects of these drugs on the brain that promote emotional resilience.

“Researchers should prioritize the study of the possible use of statins as a preventive intervention against depression. Before using them in clinical practice, it is important that future research confirms the potential psychological benefits of statins by the bias of randomized controlled clinical trials,” Dr. Gillespie concluded.

About this psychopharmacology research news

Author: Press office
Source: Elsevier
Contact: Press office – Elsevier
Picture: Image is in public domain

Original research: Free access.
“Associations between statin use and negative affective bias during COVID-19: a longitudinal British observational study of vulnerability to depression” by Amy L. Gillespie et al. Biological psychiatry


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Associations between statin use and negative affective bias during COVID-19: a UK longitudinal observational study of vulnerability to depression


There is growing interest in the antidepressant potential of statins. We tested whether statin use is associated with cognitive markers previously found to indicate psychological vulnerability to depression, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Between April 2020 and February 2021, we conducted an online observational study of 2043 UK adults. Participants completed cognitive tasks assessing processes related to vulnerability to depression, including affective biases and reward processing. We also measured working memory, medication use and current psychiatric symptoms. Using mixed ANCOVA and regression models, we compared participants taking statins alone (n=81), antihypertensive drugs alone (n=126), both drugs (n=111) or no drug (n = 1725).


Statin use was associated with reduced recognition of angry and fearful faces (F(1)=9.19, p=0.002; F(1) = 6.9, p = 0.009) and with increased misclassification of these expressions as positive. Increased recognition of angry faces at baseline predicted increased levels of depression and anxiety ten months later (β=3.61, p=0.027; β=2.37, p=0.002). Statin use was also associated with reduced learning of loss-associated stimuli (F(1 1418)=9.90, p=0.002). These indicators of reduced negative bias were not seen in participants taking antihypertensive drugs alone, suggesting that they were related to particular statin use rather than nonspecific demographic factors. Additionally, we found no evidence of an association between statin use and impaired working memory.


Statin use was associated with cognitive markers indicating reduced psychological vulnerability to depression, supporting their potential use as a prophylactic treatment for depression.

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