According to a new Rutgers University study, a drug that is normally used to treat different forms of depression, including bipolar disorder, may help to prevent nerve cells from dying and preserve brain functions in people with a traumatic brain injury.
Rapamycin is a treatment for various types of cancer, while lithium is used as both a mood stabilizer and to treat bipolar disorder and depression. The Rutgers scientists found that rapamycin and lithium protect nerve cells in the brain and prevent the chemical glutamate from sending signals to other cells, thereby creating further brain cell damage.
Bonnie Firestein, a professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University, New Brunswick and lead author of the paper, noted that most drugs currently used for treating traumatic brain injury focus on stopping the pain and treating the symptoms, but does nothing to protect the brain from any further damage. The team set out to find a drug that would protect the cells and prevent them from dying.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1.7 million people per year sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the USA. This makes TBI a major cause of disability and death in the United States with approximately 30% of deaths due to injury being due to a TBI.
Symptoms of a TBI include impaired memory or thinking, depression and personality changes, and hearing and vision problems. According to CDC reports, 153 people in America die from injuries that contain a TBI every day. Older adults and children are at the highest risk.
Firestein noted that when a violent blow to the head causes a TBI, this could result in an abnormally high concentration of glutamate being released. Under normal conditions, glutamate is an important chemical for memory and learning. An overproduction of glutamate however causes toxicity, which ultimately leads to cell damage and death.
The Rutgers scientists discovered that when these two drugs, which are both FDA-approved, were added to damaged cell cultures in the lab, the glutamate could no longer send messages between nerve cells. Firestein noted that this resulted in cell damage and death being prevented.
Firestein cautioned that more research had to be undertaken in both animals and humans to find out if these drugs would actually prevent nerve cell death and brain damage in humans after a TBI was sustained.
Firestein concluded by noting that concussion was the most common traumatic brain injury people deal with every day, and that it affected thousands of children annually. Concussions are however very difficult to diagnose in children as they are not as vocal. This makes it all the more important to identify drugs that will work to prevent damage in the long term.
The research was published in Scientific Reports.