New hope for stroke rehabilitation

Australian researchers are beginning a new study that looks at the effects of the anti-depressant fluoxetine (also known as Prozac) on the rehabilitation of stroke patients.

The new study, led by Associate Professor Maree Hackett of The George Institute for Global Research and co-principal investigator Graeme Hankey (Perth), comes after a small French study in 2010 that indicated that anti-depressants may help people move again after stroke.

This time, the study is large, involving 1600 people, and will take place in Australia and New Zealand where stroke is the second biggest killer after heart disease. In 2012, more than 420,000 Australians were living with the effects of stroke, with about 50,000 strokes occurring each year, or 1,000 strokes per week

“The French study showed that patients who were on the antidepressants were able to physically move much better than patients who were not on the medication,” said A/Prof Hackett.

“It may be that the medication helps patients because they are happier and therefore more likely to stick to their rehabilitation, or it may be that the medication is helping patients make new connections in their brains that are vital to movement.”

The study, which is underway in Western Australia, is about to begin recruiting patients in New South Wales and New Zealand.

A/Prof Hackett said the French study showed not just a small improvement for patients using the medication. “It resulted in such a large improvement it made the difference between whether patients could live unassisted or not.”

The study, however, finished after three months and did not follow up to find out whether patients regressed after being taken off the medication, or whether there were better outcomes from different doses or longer periods of medication, she said.

“We’re quite excited about the potential for this study to answer some really important questions. And if it works, this course of treatment may have potential for other types of injury.”

The trial is called AFFINITY, and is funded by NHMRC. A/Prof Hackett holds a Future Leader Fellowship through The Heart Foundation, which has funded her work on this project.