Can Botox Treat Depression Along with Wrinkles?

A new study suggests that Botox, a popular anti-wrinkle treatment, may also help treat depression. The study, which researchers warn may have too few test subjects to be scientifically valid, found that the moods of 10 depressed women given Botox injections for frown lines improved after the treatment. Madeleine Brand discusses the study with Los Angeles Times health reporter Susan Brink.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up: Slate's Summary Judgment on this week's new movies, and in Iraq a shooting that's okay; a Kurdish filmmaker's new feature. But first...

BRAND: Are you depressed? Do you have wrinkles? Well, a little shot in the forehead might solve both problems. A new study says Botox might actually help people who are depressed. Susan Brink is a health reporter for The Los Angeles Times and she wrote about this new study for the paper, and welcome to the show.

Ms. SUSAN BRINK (Reporter, Los Angeles Times): Thank you very much. It's good to be here.

BRAND: Well, tell us about this study. How was it conducted and who is in it?

Ms. BRINK: Well, it was a very small study and that's what people have to keep in mind. Some commentators on the study have actually said it's really no better than anecdotal reports it's so small. It was only 10 women. They were found by a dermatologist who had noticed that some of his patients after getting Botox injections in their frown lines in the forehead furrows came in and said they were feeling better.

And he thought it was more than feeling better because you looked better. So he asked for volunteers who were depressed, and he started out by giving them a depression survey; they also were interviewed by a psychologist who agreed that they were depressed. Then the 10 women were given Botox injections in frown lines.

Then they came back two months later and repeated the depression survey and the interview with the psychologist and nine of the ten women -their depression had lifted. The tenth woman still had some symptoms of depression, but she showed improvement.

BRAND: Is the hypothesis that it's the chemical itself in Botox, or is it something else that might be erasing the depression?

Ms. BRINK: No one knows is the bottom line. But the more solid theory is that it's sort of like a societal reaction. When you smile people smile back at you. When you frown people frown back at you. And there's a social feedback loop that is triggered by your facial expressions.

BRAND: So people actually look more kindly towards someone who doesn't have deep furrows?

Ms. BRINK: They do. They do. And they...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Uh-oh.

Ms. BRINK: If you were walking around with a hangdog look on your face and slumped shoulders and, you know, you're not very inviting to talk to, to interact with. And, in fact, part of cognitive therapy is -involves teaching people to get rid of that hangdog look.

BRAND: Hmm. Any historic precedent in this?

Ms. BRINK: The physician - the dermatologist who did this study, he came across some writings by Darwin, Charles Darwin, who suggested that, in a sense, we are what we look like, in terms of facial expression. That physical display of how you're feeling - for example, if you're feeling happy, the physical display of happiness on your face and, perhaps even in your gestures, increases the feeling of happiness, just as the physical display of sadness increases your feelings of sadness. He said something like, you know, the emotional expressions are who we are. You know, that was the basis for this study.

BRAND: Still this could turn out to be an expensive therapy.

Ms. BRINK: It could. The national average for this kind of treatment is about $400 per treatment; and since it's not approved for depression treatment, you know, it would be out of pocket.

BRAND: Still, high priced analysts could compete with the Botox.

Ms. BRINK: It's usually out of pocket, as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Now, of course, the caution to all of this is that depression is a serious illness. You know, it can be very debilitating. It can even be life threatening, people commit suicide. So, you know, depression has to be taken very seriously.

BRAND: Now, were these women in the study - were they seriously depressed or mildly depressed?

Ms. BRINK: They were mildly to moderately depressed. The one woman that I talked to said that she had tried various therapies, talk therapy, as well as drug therapies, and nothing really worked for her; and she had been sort of in and out of depression for the better part of 20 years of her adult life and she said this really worked for her. It sort of lifted something and allowed her to go out and interact and feel better.

BRAND: Imagine what a whole facelift would do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Well, Susan Brink, thank you for coming in and talking about this with us.

Ms. BRINK: You're very welcome.

BRAND: Susan Brink is a health reporter with The Los Angeles Times.

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