MAYWOOD, Ill., Dec. 1 (UPI) -- Researchers at Loyola University Medical Center found treating depression patients with escitalopram, or Lexapro, also caused the levels of two neurotoxic compounds connected to dementia to drop significantly -- suggesting the drug could be used to prevent memory loss and dementia.
The researchers were studying the immune response to depression, which interacts in a psychological and physiological cycle of stress and response.
Stress can lead to depression in some people. If this depression goes untreated, researchers said, it causes stress in the body, stimulating the immune system to fight both stress and depression as it would a disease or infection by causing inflammation. While inflammation can protect against stress, over time it becomes chronic as a result of the depression cycle and can cause other health problems.
The inflammatory response over time leads to the production of neurotoxic compounds that kill brain cells, spurring memory loss and dementia over the long term. The longer that depression is not treated, or treated well enough, the worse this effect can be.
"It behooves us to diagnose depression early, treat it vigorously to achieve remission and work to prevent its relapse," said Dr. Angelos Halaris, a professor at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, in a press release.
Researchers treated 30 severely depressed patients with escitalopram, comparing them to 27 healthy people, and followed them for 12 weeks. Ten patients dropped out of the study, either because of side effects from the drug or other reasons, leaving 20 who completed the study -- 16 of whom reported either total or partial relief of their depression after treatment.
Before starting treatment, the researchers measured nine substances secreted by the immune system in all 57 of the participants, noting that average levels were higher in the depression patients than the healthy ones. Among depression patients, the levels of two neurotoxic compounds dropped significantly over the course of the 12-week study.
Going forward, researchers said their findings will need to be repeated in other, larger studies, adding that other similar drugs -- escitalopram, like the widely-used Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor -- may have the same effect.
The study is published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.