Lithium may save nerve cells after brain injury

(Credit: Getty Images)

A drug used to treat bipolar disorder and other forms of depression may help preserve brain function and prevent nerve cells from dying in people with a traumatic brain injury.

Scientists discovered that lithium and rapamycin, a treatment for some forms of cancer, protect nerve cells in the brain and stop the chemical glutamate from sending signals to other cells and creating further brain cell damage.

“Many medications now used for those suffering with traumatic brain injury focus on treating the symptoms and stopping the pain instead of protecting any further damage from occurring,” says lead author Bonnie Firestein, professor of cell biology and neuroscience at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “We wanted to find a drug that could protect the cells and keep them from dying.”

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a major cause of death and disability in the United States with an estimated 1.7 million people sustaining an injury every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 30 percent of all deaths due to injury are due, in part, to a TBI.

TBI symptoms can include impaired thinking or memory, personality changes, and depression, as well as vision and hearing problems. The CDC reports that every day 153 people in the US die from injuries that include a TBI, with children and older adults at the highest risk.

Jello shows how hit to skull wobbles our brain

When a TBI occurs, a violent blow to the head can result in the release of abnormally high concentrations of glutamate, which under normal circumstances is an important chemical for learning and memory. But an overproduction of glutamate, Firestein says, causes toxicity which leads to cell damage and death.

The research, reported in Scientific Reports, shows that when these two FDA-approved medications were added to damaged cell cultures in the laboratory, the glutamate was not able to send messages between nerve cells—which stopped cell damage and death.

Further research needs to be done, in animals and humans, to determine if these drugs could help prevent brain damage and nerve cell death in humans after a traumatic brain injury.

“The most common traumatic brain injury that people deal with every day is concussion which affects thousands of children each year,” Firestein says. “Concussions are often hard to diagnose in children because they are not as vocal, which is why it is critical to find drugs that work to prevent long-term damage.”

The New Jersey Commission on Brain Injury Research funded the work. The commission is funded, in part, by traffic tickets for moving violations like speeding, using a cell phone, or driving without a license, and provides $1 to the fund from every ticket issued.

Source: Rutgers University