A flu drug that has been around for decades may help speed the recovery of patients with severe traumatic brain injuries (TBI), according to a new study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.
A hospital study divided 184 patients with severe TBI caused by falls and car crashes randomly into two groups. About one third of the patients were in a vegetative state with only brief periods of wakefulness while the rest were only minimally conscious. One group received a daily dose of Amantadine, a drug first approved in the 1960s to help combat the flu virus, while the other group received a placebo.
After a course of four weeks, researchers found small but significant improvement in the brain function of patients in both groups. However, patients who received Amantadine showed a quicker rate of recovery.
According to a CBS News report, “Changes included the ability to give yes-and-no answers, follow commands or use a spoon or hairbrush. Of the patients who received amantadine, only 17 percent remained in a vegetative state, versus 32 percent of those who received the dummy drug.”
Moreover, recovery slowed in the Amantadine patients after treatment stopped, and after two weeks the recovery level of both patient groups was nearly the same. Because the study was so short, researchers weren’t able to determine the drug’s effect on patients’ recovery in the long-term.
One of the study’s authors, Joseph Giacino, a Boston-based neurologist, told CBS that the drug should have similar effects on patients with penetrating head injures, such as the gunshot wound Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords received, but he could not postulate whether it would be effective in treating strokes and similar forms of brain trauma.
“It really does provide hope for a population that is viewed in many places as hopeless,” Dr. Giacino told CBS.
Doctors have already been using Amantadine to treat patients with severe brain injuries for years, although no formal studies have been done to test the drug’s efficacy as a TBI drug. Doctors have known, however, that the inexpensive generic drug has been effective in enhancing the brain’s dopamine system and improving movement and alertness among nursing home patients with Parkinson’s disease. The recent study was conducted because doctors wanted to know more definitively whether Amantadine was actually useful to TBI patients, or whether it was useless or even potentially harmful.
Every year, nearly 2 million Americans suffer from TBI, most of which are the result of falls, car crashes, struck-by injuries, and assault. About 75 percent of those injuries are concussions, which if treated properly, usually heal over time. But 52,000 people die annually as a result of TBI and another 275,000 are hospitalized with severe, persistent injuries. March is Brain Injury Awareness Month.