A University of Iowa study finds stroke victims who were given antidepression medication, whether they were depressed or not, had much faster, more thorough recoveries than patients who got placebos. Dr. Robert Robinson, senior study author and head of psychiatry at the U-of-I, says it was an unexpected, welcome result.

Robinson says, “It was a surprise, really, when we found that the antidepressants, independent of depression, significantly improved their physical recovery from stroke.” Stroke is the leading cause of adult disability in the U.S., with some 795,000 people being hit by strokes every year.

Robinson says the study’s findings suggest the antidepressant medication has abilities, not related to treating depression, which allow the body to recover from stroke more quickly and completely. Robinson says, “Patients who had received placebo, on average, required assistance for their daily activities, while the patients who received the active treatment, that is the antidepression medication, did not require assistance.”

With further study, Robinson says their findings could bring about a significant change in the way stroke victims are treated. This U-of-I study involved 83 patients, 53 of whom were randomly assigned to get the antidepressants, while the rest got placebos. Their progress was checked every three months for a year and Robinson says the differences were remarkable for those who got the extra meds.

“They still had some symptoms of stroke, such as weakness on one side of their body, for example, but they were able to take care of all of their daily activities,” Robinson says. “They were able to dress themselves, feed themselves and that’s a huge difference.” He says the U-of-I is working to launch another much larger study that would involve perhaps a thousand stroke patients. The study was funded in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health and was published online in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.