Antidepressant May Improve Cognitive Function After Stroke

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Patients who received the antidepressant escitalopram (Lexapro) following a stroke appeared to recover more of their thinking, learning and memory skills than those patients taking placebo or participating in problem-solving therapy, according to a report in the February issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.
Stroke remains a major health care problem and a significant cause of death and disability around the world. Significant recent advances in treating stroke include clot-dissolving therapy, which needs to be administered within the first few hours after symptoms begin. "Consequently, besides the efforts currently undertaken to increase the number of patients treated with thrombolytic agents, there is growing interest in restorative therapies that can be administered during the first few months after stroke, the period within which we observe the greatest degree of spontaneous recovery of initial motor and cognitive deficits," the authors write.

One line of research has focused on antidepressants, which may be effective in part because of their ability to stimulate production of compounds essential for nerve cell growth. Ricardo E. Jorge, M.D., and colleagues at the University of Iowa, studied the effects of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) escitalopram among 129 stroke patients. Within three months of their stroke, 43 patients were randomly assigned to take 5 to 10 mg of escitalopram daily, 45 to take a placebo daily and 41 to participate in a problem-solving therapy program developed for patients with depression.

After 12 weeks of treatment, patients taking escitalopram had higher scores on neuropsychological tests assessing overall cognitive (thinking, learning and memory) function and on those tests measuring verbal and visual memory. "Importantly, the reported changes in neuropsychological performance resulted in an improvement in related activities of daily living," the authors write.

"The beneficial effect of escitalopram on cognitive recovery was independent of its effect on depressive symptoms and was not influenced by stroke type or mechanism of ischemic stroke," they continue. "In addition, escitalopram was well-tolerated, and the frequency of adverse effects related to its administration was not different than that observed among patients receiving placebo."

Increasing evidence suggests antidepressants cause changes in brain structure, including the visual cortex, hippocampus and cerebral cortex. These structural changes, although not yet proven to affect behavioral performance, may underlie the improvements in verbal and visual memory observed in this trial, the authors note.

"Overall, whatever may be the mechanism of improved cognitive recovery, this study has shown, for the first time, that escitalopram, an SSRI, is associated with improved cognitive recovery following stroke compared with placebo and Problem-Solving Therapy," they conclude. "The utility of antidepressants in the process of poststroke recovery deserves to be further investigated."

This work was supported solely by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Jann Ingmire

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 16, 2010