Hundreds of WA stroke patients will be given Prozac, the drug that revolutionised the treatment of depression in the 1990s, to test whether it can reduce the chances of them being left permanently disabled.
WA Health Department researchers are planning a large-scale trial involving 1600 patients after a small French study found the antidepressant trebled the chances of patients recovering with good function and movement. It is thought that Prozac could help with nerve cell regeneration and brain plasticity, thereby aiding stroke recovery.
Known generically as fluoxetine and from a group of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, Prozac has been used by millions of people since it was released in 1988.
The stroke study is being funded from $6 million awarded under WA's Medical and Health Research Infrastructure Fund.
It will enlist 1600 newly-affected stroke patients from hospitals across Australia and New Zealand, including Sir Charles Gairdner, Royal Perth, Osborne Park and Swan District.
Half of them will take Prozac for six months, while the others will be given placebos.
University of WA professor of neurology and chief investigator Graeme Hankey said the French trial had "seemingly remarkable results" but was based on only 57 stroke patients.
A bigger study was needed to confirm whether the drug could help with nerve cell regeneration and improve speech and cognitive function as well as limb movement.
He said a study was also needed to ensure the drug was safe to use in the elderly - the group most prone to stroke - and that it provided sustained improvement after the treatment was stopped.
But the implications were important, because it was a simple, affordable and widely available treatment.
If found to be effective in treating stroke patients, it had the potential to not only improve their quality of life and ease the burden on carers, but also be cost effective for the health system.
Professor Hankey said that while the rate of stroke was falling in Australia, the actual number of people affected was growing.
In WA alone, 5000 people have a stroke every year, with one-quarter of them dying within 12 months. More than half of patients are left permanently disabled and needing a carer.