* May give doctors another way to prevent disability
* Findings need further study
CHICAGO, Feb 1 (Reuters) - The antidepressant Lexapro may help protect key thinking functions if taken soon after a stroke, U.S. researchers said on Monday.
They said people who took Forest Laboratories Inc’s FRX.N Lexapro, or escitalopram, after a stroke recovered more of their thinking, learning and memory skills than others who had counseling-type therapy normally used to treat depression or who were given a placebo.
Doctors rush to give clot-busting drugs to stroke patients within the first three hours of the start of a stroke to prevent permanent disability.
But the study, conducted by a team at the University of Iowa, suggested giving patients an antidepressant within months after a stroke may have an added benefit of preserving brain function.
“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,” Dr. Ricardo Jorge and colleagues wrote in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.
It is not clear why Lexapro helped, but they said there is increasing evidence that antidepressants cause changes in key brain structures needed for memory and thinking — including the visual cortex, hippocampus and cerebral cortex — that may help explain the memory improvements.
Lexapro is one of a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs. The researchers said the study is the first to show that an SSRI can improve brain function after a stroke and deserves further study.
The team studied the effects of Lexapro in 129 stroke patients.
About a third were assigned to take 5 to 10 milligrams of Lexapro daily within three months of their stroke, another third took a placebo daily and the rest took part in a therapy program developed for treating patients with depression.
After three months, the group taking Lexapro scored higher on tests of thinking, learning and memory function, as well as verbal and visual memory tests.
Those patients were better able to complete their daily activities and the progress was independent of any improvement in depression symptoms, the team reported.
Stroke is the No. 3 killer in the United States behind heart disease and cancer. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says strokes will kill 150,000 people and leave 15 percent to 30 percent of survivors permanently disabled.
Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Maggie Fox and Stacey Joyce