Background: Data from several studies suggest that medications, such as ketoconazole, which lower cortisol levels, may be effective for major depressive disorder (MDD). As with MDD, the manic, depressive, and mixed phases of bipolar disorder are frequently associated with elevated cortisol levels. The literature on the use of cortisol-lowering strategies in mood disorders is reviewed, and a case series illustrating the use of ketoconazole in bipolar depression is presented.
Methods: For the review, the MEDLINE and PSYCHINFO databases were searched, as were the bibliographies of pertinent articles to find papers on the use of cortisol-lowering agents in patients with mood disorders. In our open-label case series (n=6), ketoconazole (up to 800 mg/day) as an add-on therapy was given to patients with treatment-resistant or intolerant bipolar I or II disorders with current symptoms of depression.
Results: Several case reports and small open studies suggest that cortisol-lowering agents may be useful for patients with depression. Two recent placebo-controlled trials of ketoconazole on patients with MDD report conflicting results. In our case series, all three patients who received a dose of at least 400 mg/day had substantial reductions in depressive symptoms. None had significant increases in mania. However, cortisol levels were not lowered in any of the subjects.
Conclusions: The literature suggests that cortisol-lowering medications may be effective for a subset of depressed patients. Our preliminary findings suggest that ketoconazole may be useful in some patients with bipolar depression. Larger clinical trials are needed to confirm our observations.