December 15, 2017

Pictured above: Dr. Paul Albert, left, and Dr. Faranak Vahid-Ansari of the University of Ottawa.

SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), one of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants, boost memory and cognition after stroke, but exercise may have little impact, according to a CPSR-funded studypublished by University of Ottawa researchers in the journal Neurotherapeutics.

“Exercise may not be that helpful for post-stroke depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Albert, who with this team developed a new animal model to test chronic treatments for memory loss and depression after stroke. “However, our study shows that antidepressant treatment is effective.”

The uOttawa research team also found that cognitive function – learning and memory – may respond to antidepressants and “this is something we are really excited about.”

Depression affects between 20 and 80 per cent of stroke survivors, greatly impacting their quality of life and ability to recover. Depression after stroke is not the same as regular depression because it results from a loss of cells that change the brain’s circuitry, while regular depression does not.

In their study, Dr. Albert and co-author Dr. Faranak Vahid-Ansari found that the SSRI, but not exercise, was highly effective to completely reverse all of the behaviour problems in the stroke mice, even memory loss.  They found that the stroke caused an imbalance of brain activity that was rebalanced when the animals were treated with SSRIs but not with exercise.

“For us, this was very surprising,” Dr. Albert said. “We thought the exercise would give some response, the antidepressant would give some response and, perhaps, the combination would give us a super-response.”  While exercise did not have a negative effect, it didn’t have the positive effect they were expecting.

The Albert team’s studies provide a new excitement about using antidepressants to improve recovery from strokes that affect memory.  They also provide new understanding of what brain areas may be best to correct using brain stimulation when a stroke occurs in a particular part of the brain.  Their hope is to test the effect of brain stimulation in the near future.

“What we want to do is try to understand how the antidepressants work so that we can we trigger those pathways directly when people don’t respond to medication,” Dr. Albert said. Only a third of people will see complete relief with antidepressants.

He and his team are leaders in the study of optogenetics, a technology that uses light to stimulate pathways in the brain.