Can antidepressants have heart benefits?

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© Christian Weigel/Corbis

Pills and capsules --- Image by © Christian Weigel/Corbis


While the overall benefits of antidepressants for certain patients continue to be debated, new research being presented this week at a meeting of the American Physiological Society in Anaheim, California indicates that patients taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) to treat depression may get a side benefit of improved cardiovascular health. In a small preliminary study, researchers from Loyola University Medical Center found that patients taking SSRIs showed reduced clotting of blood platelets—a potential benefit to those with cardiovascular conditions such as atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

Patients with depression are believed to suffer from abnormal neurotransmitter activity in the brain, which negatively impacts mood. SSRIs are believed to work by blocking the reuptake of the neurotransmitter serotonin by certain nerve cells, thereby leaving more of the chemical available in the brain. This in turn improves effective transmission of nerve signals, and as a result, mood. Yet, Dr. Evangelos Litinas and colleagues at Loyola hypothesized that, in addition to blocking serotonin reuptake in the brain, SSRIs might also limit uptake of the neurotransmitter by blood platelets. Very broadly, blood platelets absorb the chemical and use it to trigger response to injury—prompting the clotting process. For healthy patients, this process is important, but for those with certain cardiovascular conditions—such as atherosclerosis, or plaque build-up in the arteries—clotting when a plaque bursts can increase the risk for heart attack or stroke.

In the two-month analysis of 50 patients, 25 who were taking SSRIs and 25 not on depression medication, researchers conducted several blood tests to determine prevalence of clots, or platelet aggregation. Blood tests after four weeks showed that, when blood samples from patients not taking SSRIs were exposed to an activating chemical, 95% formed clots, or lumped together. In contrast, among patients taking antidepressants, only 37% did. Researchers found that this effect decreased some after two months, indicating that the anti-clotting impact may be most significant early in SSRI treatment. Researchers intend to continue analysis with this study group through 12 weeks, and have already planned additional research to investigate the role of SSRIs in potentially improving cardiovascular health.

In light of previous research suggesting a strong correlation between depression and poor heart health—a 2008 study published in the

Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that depression damages heart health by increasing patients’ tendency toward unhealthy behaviors such as smoking—these findings are particularly promising, the Loyola team argues. Since many patients battling depression are at elevated risk for cardiovascular problems, the researchers say, these findings indicate that treating one condition could simultaneously benefit the other as well.