Memory loss from cholesterol drugs real: How it might happen

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
How cholesterol lowering drugs might affect the brain to lead to memory loss.

If you are having trouble remembering where you put your cholesterol lowering pill, it might be from the pill itself. Researchers have now uncovered how medications, known as statins, can lead to mental fuzziness and reversible memory loss for some people.

Statins effect on the brain is real

Researchers from University of Arizona discovered brain cells treated with statins swell, causing a sort of traffic jam in signaling cells of the brain known as neurons; revealed in lab studies. The result could explain why some people taking cholesterol lowering drugs report difficulty thinking and memory loss.

The scientists have dubbed what they saw in the lab as the "beads-on-a-string" effect that is probably more severe than what really happens to people sensitive to statins who suffer memory problems. The study authors say the swelling seen in the brain’s neuron was significant.

Neuroscientist Linda L. Restifo, who assisted with the study said if the scientists look at the 'beads' that are formed from statins, it might help explain why some patients suffer cognitive decline.

Robert Kraft, a former research associate in the department of neuroscience led the study that opens doors for more personalized medicine. Predicting who will react badly to anti-cholesterol medicines could help for boosting therapeutic outcomes, said David M. Labiner, who heads the UA department of neurology.

Side effects of drugs often leads to non-adherence. Patients quit taking their medications and might not tell their doctor.

Rather than automatically prescribing the drugs for high cholesterol that are already taken by million, genetic testing could predict who might suffer consequences of memory loss from the therapy.

An accidental finding

The researchers say they stumbled upon how statins might cause memory problems when they were testing 1,040 drug compounds on fruit-fly neurons.

Kraft and colleagues have been studying gene mutations in hopes of finding ways to treat autism and other cognitive problems.


In 2006, the researchers published findings that they had discovered one gene mutation that caused neurons in the brain to be ‘curly’ rather than straight. They were able to reverse it with several drugs.

The serendipitous finding came when Kraft noticed one compound and then several others created the same reaction – 4 of the compounds were statins.

"The 'beads' effect of the statins was like a bonus prize from the earlier experiment," Restifo said. "It was so striking, we couldn't ignore it.”

When they took the anti-cholesterol drugs away the ‘beads-on-a-string effect’ went away.

Monica Chaung, who has been part of the team and is a UA undergraduate researcher, said in a press release the cholesterol lowering drugs can be life saving for some, but for other patients, the drugs can lead to mental impairment.

What we know and don’t know about statins

The researchers say there is no question that statins reduce lower cholesterol levels and save lives. But there is also still a lot we don’t know about how they affect behavior and cognition.

Another side effect reported by patients who take the drugs is muscle pain that leaves unanswered questions.

A crucial area of consideration is how statins could affect children, Kraft says, given that more of the drugs are being prescribed in younger age groups.

"It's important to look into this to see if people may have some sort of predisposition to the beads effect, and that's where we want to go with this research," Kraft said. "There must be more research into what effects these drugs have other than just controlling a person's elevated cholesterol levels."

If you take cholesterol lowering drugs and having side effects:

  • Speak with your doctor if you are having memory problems or muscle pain.
  • Ask your doctor if you might take the drug every other day and follow up with your doctor regularly for blood work and discussion about how you’re feeling.
  • Don’t stop your medications. There is good evidence they can prevent stroke and heart attack.
  • Understand that as a health care consumer it is okay to ask questions.
  • Know that drug side effects can impair quality of life.
  • If your health care provider fails to listen, consider changing doctors.
  • Know that lifestyle change can help reverse heart disease risks and lower cholesterol levels. Speak with a nutritionist about heart healthy foods. Obtain exercise guidelines from your doctor. Find ways to decrease stress. If you smoke, ask your doctor for help quitting.

Losing your keys, fuzzy thinking, forgetting to pay bills or other changes in memory might be easily reversed by just adjusting the dose of your medication. The study results show memory loss from cholesterol lowering drugs is real. The researchers hope their finding will lead to a more personalized approach to medication treatment. They suspect s genes that affect how people respond to statins, but right now there is no way to predict who might lose their memory from anti-cholesterol drugs. Gene assay tests might help.


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