Researchers are being urged to prioritise investigation into the potential use of statins to manage depression, after new evidence suggested they may ‘promote emotional resilience’.

The influence of cholesterol-lowering statins on emotional bias - a marker for risk of depression - has been examined in a study by researchers at the University of Oxford.

Between April 2020 and February 2021, at the height of the pandemic, more than 2,000 people took part in the online observational study, Associations between statin use and negative affective bias during Covid-19.

Participants completed cognitive tasks assessing processes related to depression vulnerability, including affective bias and reward processing. Working memory, medication use, and current psychiatric symptoms were also measured.

One task, for example, required those taking part to identify the emotional expressions of faces, which displayed varying degrees of fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, anger or fear.

Of those taking part, 4% were taking only statins, 6% a different class of anti-hypertension medication, 5% both, and 84% neither.

The study found those taking statins were less likely to recognise fearful or angry faces, and more likely to report them as positive, indicating they had reduced negative emotional bias.

Dr Amy Gillespie, who led the research, said: 'We know reducing negative emotional bias can be important for the treatment of depression.

'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.

'Our findings also provide the first potential psychological explanation of statins’ mental health benefits; in that they seem to affect emotion processing.'

The study said there is ‘growing interest’ in the antidepressant potential of statins, but that 'it remains unclear exactly how statins could protect against mental illness.

'One possibility is that they may work through anti-inflammatory mechanisms,' as 'increasing evidence indicates that inflammatory processes are associated with the development and maintenance of depression and the response of depressive symptoms to different interventions.

'As such, there is growing interest in developing or repurposing interventions with anti-inflammatory properties, including interest in the idea that statins may provide benefits in management of depressive disorders.'

Dr Gillespie suggested that researchers should prioritise investigation of the possible use of statins as a preventative intervention for depression.