Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors for stroke recovery

Review question
What are the effects of selective serotonin uptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs on recovery from stroke?

Stroke is a major cause of disability. Stroke-related disability can include difficulty with daily tasks such as toileting, washing, and walking. Sometimes disability is so severe that a person becomes dependent on others for performing basic activities (this is known as 'dependence'). Our previous Cochrane Review published in 2012 suggested that SSRI drugs (a class of drug usually used to treat mood problems, which work by changing the level of chemicals in the brain), might improve recovery after stroke, thereby reducing disability and increasing the chance of being independent after a stroke, However, when we looked at only the high-quality trials, the effect was less convincing.

A large trial recruiting more than 3000 participants has now been completed and so it is necessary to update this review. In our main analyses we decided to include only high-quality trials, that is those which used rigorous methods to avoid biases (such as the person assessing outcome being aware of whether the stroke survivor received the active drug or placebo). In this review, we refer to them as 'low risk of bias' trials.

If disability and dependency can be improved by a simple drug, this could have a major impact on quality of life for many stroke survivors.

We also wanted to find out whether SSRIs had other benefits, for example improving the severity of any arm or leg weakness, mood, anxiety, quality of life, and also whether SSRIs were associated with side effects such as bleeding or seizures.

Study characteristics
In total we found 63 trials recruiting 9168 stroke survivors within one year of their stroke. There was a wide age range. About half the trials required participants to have depression to enter the trial. The duration, drug, and dose varied between trials. However, only three of these trials were at low risk of bias; the participants in these trials did not have to be depressed to enter the trial, and they were all recruited soon after the stroke.

Key results
When we combined data from these three studies at low risk of bias, which recruited 3249 participants, SSRIs did not affect disability score or dependency. SSRIs reduced the risk of future depression but increased the risk of problems with the digestive system. There was no evidence of a substantial difference in seizures. When we combined data from all the studies, irrespective of risks of bias, there appeared to be a beneficial effect on recovery, but this was almost certainly because the studies at high risk of bias tended to give the positive results. The evidence is current until July 2018.

Quality of the evidence
We are confident that the results are reliable when we included just the studies at low risk of bias. When we included all studies regardless of risk of bias we found that SSRIs reduced disability. When they become available, we will include the results from two large ongoing trials in a future update.

Authors' conclusions: 

We found no reliable evidence that SSRIs should be used routinely to promote recovery after stroke. Meta-analysis of the trials at low risk of bias indicate that SSRIs do not improve recovery from stroke. We identified potential improvements in disability only in the analyses which included trials at high risk of bias. A further meta-analysis of large ongoing trials will be required to determine the generalisability of these findings.

Read the full abstract...

Stroke is a major cause of adult disability. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been used for many years to manage depression and other mood disorders after stroke. The 2012 Cochrane Review of SSRIs for stroke recovery demonstrated positive effects on recovery, even in people who were not depressed at randomisation. A large trial of fluoxetine for stroke recovery (fluoxetine versus placebo under supervision) has recently been published, and it is now appropriate to update the evidence.


To determine if SSRIs are more effective than placebo or usual care at improving outcomes in people less than 12 months post-stroke, and to determine whether treatment with SSRIs is associated with adverse effects.

Search strategy: 

For this update, we searched the Cochrane Stroke Group Trials Register (last searched 16 July 2018), the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register (CENTRAL, Issue 7 of 12, July 2018), MEDLINE (1946 to July 2018), Embase (1974 to July 2018), CINAHL (1982 July 2018), PsycINFO (1985 to July 2018), AMED (1985 to July 2018), and PsycBITE March 2012 to July 2018). We also searched grey literature and clinical trials registers.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that recruited ischaemic or haemorrhagic stroke survivors at any time within the first year. The intervention was any SSRI, given at any dose, for any period, and for any indication. We excluded drugs with mixed pharmacological effects. The comparator was usual care or placebo. To be included, trials had to collect data on at least one of our primary (disability score or independence) or secondary outcomes (impairments, depression, anxiety, quality of life, fatigue, healthcare cost, death, adverse events and leaving the trial early).

Data collection and analysis: 

We extracted data on demographics, type of stroke, time since stroke, our primary and secondary outcomes, and sources of bias. Two review authors independently extracted data from each trial. We used standardised mean differences (SMDs) to estimate treatment effects for continuous variables, and risk ratios (RRs) for dichotomous effects, with their 95% confidence intervals (CIs). We assessed risks of bias and applied GRADE criteria.

Main results: 

We identified a total of 63 eligible trials recruiting 9168 participants, most of which provided data only at end of treatment and not at follow-up. There was a wide age range. About half the trials required participants to have depression to enter the trial. The duration, drug, and dose varied between trials. Only three of the included trials were at low risk of bias across the key 'Risk of bias' domains. A meta-analysis of these three trials found little or no effect of SSRI on either disability score: SMD −0.01 (95% CI −0.09 to 0.06; P = 0.75; 2 studies, 2829 participants; moderate-quality evidence) or independence: RR 1.00 (95% CI 0.91 to 1.09; P = 0.99; 3 studies, 3249 participants; moderate-quality evidence). We downgraded both these outcomes for imprecision.

SSRIs reduced the average depression score (SMD 0.11 lower, 0.19 lower to 0.04 lower; 2 trials, 2861 participants; moderate-quality evidence), but there was a higher observed number of gastrointestinal side effects among participants treated with SSRIs compared to placebo (RR 2.19, 95% CI 1.00 to 4.76; P = 0.05; 2 studies, 148 participants; moderate-quality evidence), with no evidence of heterogeneity (I2 = 0%). For seizures there was no evidence of a substantial difference. When we included all trials in a sensitivity analysis, irrespective of risk of bias, SSRIs appeared to reduce disability scores but not dependence. One large trial (FOCUS) dominated the results.

We identified several ongoing trials, including two large trials that together will recruit more than 3000 participants.