Researchers say statins and other medications showed promise in reducing psychiatric hospitalizations and self-harm incidents.
Medical science has proven certain medications have the versatility to treat multiple conditions.
Aspirin, for instance, can help with short-term inflammation and pain, but it also works on a long-term basis to reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack.
Now, new research indicates that drugs used to treat physical health issues could potentially do double duty for people with serious mental illness.
The study, written by researchers in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Hong Kong, was in JAMA Psychiatry.
Researchers assessed the records of patients with serious mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder, who’d been treated with statins, L-type calcium channel antagonists, and biguanides — typically used to treat cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes, respectively.
Researchers said they found that exposure to these drugs was associated with reduced rates of psychiatric hospitalizations and self-harm incidents.
Joseph Hayes, PhD, a clinical research fellow consultant at the University College London’s division of psychiatry and a lead study author, told Healthline the results weren’t unexpected.
“There has been a lack of new drug development for these devastating disorders, but there is some research suggesting that a number of drugs already licensed for other indications may have positive effects on psychiatric symptoms,” Hayes said.
The research conducted by Hayes and his team is just the latest in a long history of alternative uses for existing drugs.
Dr. Kevin Johns, a psychiatrist with Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, notes that the first antipsychotic drug, chlorpromazine, was actually a repurposed antihistamine developed in the 1950s.
Johns says the findings of this most recent study make sense.
“Studies like this remind me that the brain is a human organ subject to the same biological forces as the rest of the body. We are increasingly discovering biological underpinnings for mental illnesses, so I’m not surprised to learn that drugs which treat common medical conditions may also treat mental illnesses,” Johns told Healthline.
“While we are currently able to treat a wide variety of mental health conditions, our available treatments are far from perfect. Studies like this bring hope for new treatments that may be hiding in plain sight,” he said.
Hayes also notes that people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions are often undertreated when it comes to physical health. This puts them at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
“It is therefore worth patients working with their doctors to optimize prescribing for these physical conditions, which may then have additional beneficial effects on mental health,” he pointed out.
While the research could open new avenues for treating mental health conditions, it’s important to note these are still early days.
Hayes says that, at this stage, he and his team don’t recommend people with mental health conditions to change their treatment.
He adds that medications for physical conditions shouldn’t be seen as a magic bullet for treating severe mental health conditions.
It’s also important for people to be mindful of the way mental illnesses can manifest themselves, Johns says. He points out that many conditions are unpredictable and can wax and wane over time.
“Treatment of severe mental illness is not one-size-fits-all, so it’s important for patients to work with their doctors to find the regimen that works best for them,” he wrote.
To build on their promising research, Hayes says he’d like to see additional randomized controlled trials of these medications for severe mental health conditions.
Unlike newly developed drugs, these drugs are already licensed and well-understood, Hayes says. That should help streamline the process.
The research conducted by Hayes and his colleagues is just one example of the changing face of treatments for psychiatric disorders.
Johns notes that ketamine is another medication that could be repurposed. Generally used as an anesthetic, it’s shown promise in recent years as a treatment for various mood disorders.
Moving forward, some of the tried and tested treatments are being refined and improved upon.
“Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) remains one of the most effective treatments for many mental health conditions, but newer ‘neuromodulation’ techniques are coming down the pipeline,” Johns said.
“For example, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) employs a powerful magnet to stimulate targeted parts of the brain to treat mental illness,” he explained. “Unlike ECT, it does not require the patient to be under anesthesia. TMS is already being used to treat depression, and it is being studied to treat a number of other mental health conditions.”
While the field is full of promising findings and new technology, a number of issues unrelated to medical breakthroughs make living with mental illness a continuing challenge.
Johns says that accessing mental health services is a major hurdle for patients and physicians alike, with a shortage of mental health professionals in the United States. This tends to overburden primary care physicians, who are then tasked with providing mental health treatment.
Then there are societal issues, such as stigma.
“I think the stigma surrounding mental illnesses is one of the greatest challenges for the people who are affected by these conditions,” Johns stressed.
“Unlike many other medical conditions, mental illnesses often lack obvious outward signs. As a result, patients often suffer in silence or are told to ‘just get over it’. People living with mental illness are often misconceived as untrustworthy, dangerous, feeble, or lazy, when in fact they can be some of the brightest, bravest, and most caring people in our communities,” he said.
Drugs used for physical conditions, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, may be able to do double duty as a treatment for mental health conditions.
Researchers say a recent study showed statins, L-type calcium channel antagonists, and biguanides helped reduce psychiatric hospitalizations and self-harm incidents.
The researchers do caution this research is in its early stages, and people with mental health conditions shouldn’t stop their current treatments to take alternative medications.