Besides lowering cholesterol, statins can also fight malaria infections, according to a new study.

Researchers found that adding lovastatin, a widely used cholesterol-lowering drug, to traditional anti-malarial treatment decreases neuroinflammation and protects against brain damage in mice infected with cerebral malaria.

While the study is on mice, researchers say the new findings suggest that future clinical trials on cerebral malaria should focus on statins as a way of treating the mosquito-borne disease.

Statins have been shown to be effective in modulating a variety of immune system responses.

Senior co-author Dr. Guy Zimmerman, associate chair for research in the Department of Medicine at the University of Utah, and his team found that adding the statin drug lovastatin to traditional malaria treatments prevented cognitive dysfunction in mice infected with cerebral malaria.

They explained that adding lovastatin to malaria medication decreased the accumulation of white blood cells and "leakiness" of blood vessels in the brains of experimental mice.

Researchers found that the statin also reduced inflammation by cutting down the production of damaging oxygen-containing molecules.

"The molecular mechanisms that give rise to cerebral malaria and subsequent cognitive dysfunction are not yet known," Zimmerman said in a statement. "However, the fact that statin treatment decreases both injurious blood vessel inflammation and cognitive dysfunction suggests that a combination of vascular and inflammatory triggers leads to cerebral pathology and intellectual deficits."

Researchers from the current study also found that lovastatin prevented cognitive impairment in an experimental model of bacterial sepsis, a severe whole-body bacterial infection that can lead to brain damage.

"Our findings are exciting because the clinical implications extend beyond cerebral malaria to other severe systemic inflammatory syndromes complicated by brain involvement," says Zimmerman.

"We believe our observations are the first experimental evidence to support the possibility of using statins to reduce cognitive impairment in critically ill patients," he concluded.

The study is published in the journal PLOS Pathogens.