A large study led by University College London (UCL) has found that cheap, common physical health drugs could help treat serious mental illness (SMI) such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Performed in alliance with Karolinska Institute and University of Hong Kong, the study analysed the health data records of 142,691 SMI patients in Sweden.

The team primarily assessed patients who were prescribed statins used for cholesterol/heart disease, L-type calcium channel antagonists (LTCC) to decrease high blood pressure, and biguanides for diabetes.

In the health records, the researchers looked for incidents of self-harm and psychiatric hospitalisation. They checked if these episodes occurred when patients were taking the prescribed medication.

Exposure to any of the study drugs was observed to be associated with reduced psychiatric hospitalisation rates, compared to unexposed periods.

"Given these drugs are commonly used and well-known to doctors they should be further investigated as repurposed agents for psychiatric symptoms."

The researchers also found that self-harm decreased in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia patients during exposure to all study drugs, and in patients with non-affective psychosis using L-type calcium channel antagonists.

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Study lead author Joseph Hayes said: “This study is the first to use large population data sets to compare patient’s exposure to these commonly used drugs and the potential effects on people with serious mental illnesses.

“Our research provides additional evidence that exposure to HMG-CoA RIs, LTCC antagonists, and biguanides might lead to improved outcomes for individuals with SMI.

“Given these drugs are commonly used and well-known to doctors they should be further investigated as repurposed agents for psychiatric symptoms.”

The team believes that gaining more insights into the mechanism of action of the study drugs on the central nervous system may enable development of new therapies targeting serious mental illness.

Hayes noted: “All three studied drugs are globally licensed, commonly used, cheap, and relatively safe medications. They are therefore ideal candidates for repurposing. If substantiated, this study has considerable implications for clinical practice and drug development.”