Potential underlying mechanism for statin side effects on the brain found

One of the things you’ll hear from ‘key opinion leaders’ who promote the use of statins is that these drugs have a very good safety profile. These judgements appear to be based on the findings of studies in which statins are given to individuals in the context of ‘randomised controlled trials’ (where statins are pitted against each other and/or a placebo). However, sometimes those prone to side-effects are screened out before the study gets underway. Also, sometimes the bar for what is determined a side-effect can be set very high. This means that, in reality, statin side effects are more common and more significant than the results of trials would suggest.

Taking a look around the internet I notice that there are ever-increasingly numbers of reports from individuals who appear to have suffered at the hands of statins. I see the same thing in my practice too. Not uncommonly, I’ve seen individuals who have symptoms such as fatigue and muscle pain who have seen these disappear or improve considerably on stopping their statin, only to return on resumption of it. Maybe these people have imagined these changes or it’s some sort of placebo effect going on, but I tend to take people at face value and believe their experience is what matters here. I also happen to believe, as I alluded to above, that statin side effects are more common than some would have us believe.

Another common symptom that crops up in statin-takers is ‘fuzzy thinking’ or ‘brain fog’. I was interested to read about a recent study [1] (report here) which found statins can have a very unusual effect on nerve cells (neurons).

The research, conducted at the University of Arizona, involved exposing nerve cells from the fruit fly to over 1,000 drugs in blind fashion (meaning that the researchers did not know what drugs were being added to the nerve cell cultures). At the end of the experiments, in four instances, the nerve cells developed an appearance of ‘beads on a string’. Here’s a ‘before (left) and after (right)’ photo.


It is believed that these bead-like growths within the nerve cells would hamper nerve transmission. So, here’s the kicker: in all four instances where this change occurred, the drug to which the nerve cells were exposed was a statin.

In the report about this study I linked to, the researchers involved in this study point out that there’s a chance that some people are more genetically susceptible to neurological statins than others, and that’s certainly valid in my opinion. Also, it should perhaps be borne in mind that culturing fruit fly cells with drugs in the laboratory does not necessarily mirror what happens when human beings take statin drugs orally.

However, it is known that certain statins are able to be absorbed into the brain (across the ‘blood brain barrier’) where, potentially, they may exert harmful effects. The statins which confer the greatest risk in this respect are described as ‘lipophilic’ (attracted to fat) statins and include commonly prescribed agents such as atorvastatin (Lipitor) and simvastatin (Zocor).


1. Kraft R, etal. A cell-based fascin bioassay identifies compounds with potential anti-metastasis or cognition-enhancing functions. Disease Models & Mechanisms 2012;6(1): 217

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13 Responses to Potential underlying mechanism for statin side effects on the brain found

  1. Bjjcaveman 15 May 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    Had a few family members that noted the same side effects that went away after stopping statins.

  2. Eddie Mitchell 15 May 2013 at 6:18 pm #

    Dear Dr. Briffa

    Are you aware of how much money you are costing big pharma? With unemployment rising and you want to help people to a happier and healthier life! Please spare a thought for junk food outfits and those looking to reduce the burden on our pension system. Your blog is likely to cause a rise in life expectancy, have you no shame. Get a grip man and repent! You’re a total disgrace to your profession.

    Angry of Barton-On-Sea

  3. TerryJ 15 May 2013 at 6:38 pm #

    “culturing fruit fry cells with drugs” – I’ve never fried fruit – is this the latest fad ?

  4. Indignant of Kirk Ireton 16 May 2013 at 12:44 pm #


    ‘Angry of Barton on Sea’ indicates that raising life expectancy will create an additional burden for the pension system.
    Assimilating security for our later years and retirement will never be easy, however there are ways in which it was easier in the past. Marshall Sahlins, author of ‘Stone Age Economics’ and other titles, may have explored this.
    Peoples of the past used to live in manageable, egalitarian, and altruistic societies in which they expected contributions in line with ability. They could teach their young and hunt and gather to support their elders and the ailing. There are a few remaining peoples in remote parts living like this. They can meet their needs with not much more that three to four hours of enterprising activity per day. They are happy and don’t suffer the chronic illnesses we do, yet we who are frequently stressed, often distracted, and treat fellow humans with cynicism, think of them as primitive. We are stupid by comparison.
    Progress has resulted that we each try to provide for our retirement by saving for it with an instrument called ‘money’. There could be nothing wrong with this save that the money we use and tolerate ‘nets to nothing’ in the grander scheme – yet we do not notice. Hence we ‘compete’ for a share of something that isn’t really there, and that is the entry point of cynicism of the kind illuminated by ‘Angry of Barton-on-Sea’.
    that the pension system could be regarded as burdensome is a man-made and modern phenomenon, quite like many chronic health conditions, and with the same root reasons.
    It isn’t just that food was better in the palaeolithic.

    Indignant of Kirk Ireton.

  5. Eddie Mitchell 16 May 2013 at 9:29 pm #

    Indignant of Kirk Ireton

    “There could be nothing wrong with this save that the money we use and tolerate ‘nets to nothing’ in the grander scheme – yet we do not notice. Hence we ‘compete’ for a share of something that isn’t really there, and that is the entry point of cynicism of the kind illuminated by ‘Angry of Barton-on-Sea”

    I agree, check this out it makes sense to me. We come into the world with nothing, we leave the world with nothing. In between times we work most of our lives to collect junk.

    Many years ago, and when a young man, I read a book by the actor Sterling Hayden called the Wanderer. It had a profound effect on me then, and to this day . A passage from this great book.

    “So it is no wonder that the mass of people regard the wanderer as a cross between a romantic vagabond and an irresponsible semi-ne’er-do-well who can’t-or won’t-fit in. Which is not to say that those who are fated to stay at home and toe the line do not look at the wanderer with envy and, yes, even awe, for he is doing what they would like to be doing, and something tells them they will never do it unless they either “strike it rich” or retire -and once retirement rolls around, chances are it will be too late. They know that too.

    This would seem to mean that the whole thing is largely a matter of luck, with which I would be the first to agree, having been blessed with good fortune through most of my working life. But I would be remiss if I didn’t add that if you want to wander, you’re going to have to work at it and give up the one thing that most non-wanderers prize so highly-the illusion of security.

    I say “illusion” because the most “secure” people I’ve encountered are, when you come right down to it, the least secure once they have been removed from job and home and bank account. While those unfortunate enough to be locked into some despised and unrewarding job are even worse off. And if I have been favoured with good luck all down the years, I can also quickly single out scores of men and women spread around this beleaguered old world who, without “luck”, have managed to live lives of freedom and adventure (that curious word) beyond the wildest dreams of the stay-at-homes who, when fresh out of school, opted for that great destroyer of men’s souls, security.”

    ISBN 978-1-57409-048-2

  6. George @ the High Fat Hep C Diet 17 May 2013 at 4:57 am #

    The effects of statins on the brain are likely due to inhibition of vitamin K2 (MK4) synthesis, which requires polyprenylation like CoQ10. K2 is required in the brain for the synthesis of special sulfur-containing lipids called sulfatides. Low CNS sulfatide levels are associated with cognitive decline and seen in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.


  7. Magarietha 17 May 2013 at 8:57 am #

    Hi Dr. Briffa, thanx so much for you excellent blog! Do you have any evidence to hand, or could lead me to any evidence regarding the fibrates (for lowering lipids and specifically trigs). Our family are nnow all on fibrates due to extreme side-effects on statins. It now takes about 4 days on a statin for all 3 of us in immediate family to develop rhabdomyolysis on statins. The first symtom is in the buttocks – you know when you sit on a toilet and those buttocks ache and the next thing is the legs and then it’s all over. But what then of the fibrates. We seem relatively okay on them, although my mom (who is 81) is starting to have severe aching in her arms and legs on these too. We have heterozygous HC. Thanx again.

  8. Indignant of Kirk Ireton 17 May 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    Interesting lead Eddie, I hope to follow it up in time.
    If I ever manage to relate the narrative in the summary, pragmatic, and ironic style I’ve been labouring hard for there’s one person I now know of who may appreciate it.
    After 10,000 hours even that would make the project worthwhile. 🙂

  9. Eddie Mitchell 17 May 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    To Indignant of Kirk Ireton

    Statinated and drugged to the gills, we squeeze into the 7.15 to Euston, fortified with junk food. Another day in a job that numbs the mind and makes suicide seem a tangible option. For what ? Another wide screen TV to watch more dross in HD. I was that man.

    Meanwhile, the primative awakes with the sunrise, spends the day hunting and retelling great tales of past hunts to younger men. Returning in the evening to healthy and happy families. No chronic disease, no stress, no prisons, no mental hospitals etc. etc.

    “The culture and civilization of the White man are essentially material; his measure of success is, “How much property have I acquired for myself?” The culture of the Red man is fundamentally spiritual; his measure of success is, “How much service have I rendered to my people?”  Ernest Thompson Seton

  10. Lorna 17 May 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    # Maragareitha: wondered if you have come across Uve Ravnsov’s medical artlcle on familial HC? if so, it’s worth reading. Another query: if your mom is 81 and heterozygous HC would that indicate she is doing well anyway?
    Good wishes to you and your family.

  11. Steven Lewis 18 May 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    Is there any evidence of Ramipril, blood pressure reducing drug having “Brain Fog” as a side effect?

  12. Suzy Kelham 23 May 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    In my humble opinion, and based entirely on personal experience, statins are about the most dangerous drugs on the market.

    I’m 65 years old and feel 30 because I stopped my statins and other toxins prescribed by my doctor.

    Modern medicine seeks not to cure the disease – merely the symptoms.

    Cholesterol is a marker. Your liver makes it in response to inflammation. Statins destroy the marker and do much more damage in the process by denying your body’s ability to defend itself.


  1. The Roundup: Edition 6 - 29 May 2013

    […] New research sheds light on brain-related side effects of statins. […]

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