Millions of people currently use statins to lower levels of bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) in their bloodstream, which allows them to stave off heart disease. But a new study finds that the relatively cheap cholesterol-lowering drug also has properties beneficial to the more complex disease: secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, an advanced-stage form of the disease.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a debilitating disease caused by the immune system’s attack on myelin sheaths throughout the nervous system. These sheaths normally protect the ends of nerve cells, and act as relays for impulses moving throughout the nervous system. If myelin is damaged, impulses either slow down or become totally disrupted. This causes a range of symptoms, with every person experiencing different ones, including dizziness, slurred speech, numbness in one or more limbs, messy vision, bladder and bowel problems, and stiffness or spasms.

While there is no cure for the disease, treatments often involve managing symptoms or slowing its progression. There are many treatment options for people with early stages of MS. But patients whose MS doesn’t seem to be remitting, and instead see it relapsing or gradually getting worse, will eventually see treatment options begin to dwindle — they’re usually the ones diagnosed with secondary progressive MS.

“I see hundreds of patients with secondary progressive MS in my clinic,” Dr. Jeremy Chataway, lead author of the study and neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, told ABC News. “These patients are physically disabled and have no treatment.” But cholesterol-reducing statins have been shown to contain anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties, and Chataway and colleagues believed that they might help nerves stay active.

Their study, a phase-two clinical trial involved 140 people with secondary progressive MS, of whom half took a high dose (80 milligrams) of the statin simvastin while the rest took a placebo. The researchers’ main goal was to reduce the rate of brain shrinkage, which occurs at a rate of about 0.6 percent each year, Chataway told The Guardian. They found that simvastin slowed the rate to an average of 0.3 percent per year — or 43 percent less.

Though the results are hopeful, they don’t necessarily indicate that MS patients will see reduced symptoms, Chataway said, adding that a larger phase-three trial would provide more insight. “There are no treatments that can stop the condition from worsening in people with progressive MS,” said Dr. Susan Kohlhaas, head of biomedical research at the MS Society, in a statement. “Scientists have worked for years to find a potential treatment that could help people, and now, finally, one has been found. This is very exciting news. Further, larger clinical trials are now absolutely crucial to confirm the safety and effectiveness of this treatment, but for now, people with MS should be really encouraged by these results.”

Source: Chataway J, Schuerer N, Alsanousi A, et al. Effect of high-dose simvastatin on brain atrophy and disability in secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (MS-STAT): a randomised, placebo-controlled, phase 2 trial. The Lancet. 2014.