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Researchers Explore Promise of Lithium to Treat Traumatic Brain Injuries

Traumatic brain injuries cause death and serious injury to approximately 1.7 million Americans each year, including about 12,000 New Jersey residents. Typically, treatment focuses on relieving the symptoms, leaving the brain to heal itself.

Now, researchers at Rutgers University have discovered that lithium, a medication that has been on the market for decades, may also offer opportunities to treat the traumatic brain injury directly.

Lithium is traditionally used as a mood stabilizer, and it is still prescribed to patients with conditions like bipolar disorder and depression when other medications do not provide adequate results. The Rutgers study discovered that lithium might also help healthy brain cells avoid damage from toxic chemicals that result from damage to neighboring cells.

The study tracked the behavior of the chemical glutamate in the brain. In normal doses, glutamate helps the brain learn and remember more quickly.

When a TBI occurs, however, damaged brain cells release massive amounts of glutamate—more than the healthy cells surrounding the injury site can handle. The healthy cells become impaired or may even die as a result of the excess glutamate.

The researchers found that both lithium and a form of rapamycin, a medication used to treat some autoimmune disorders, could help protect the healthy cells by blocking signals sent by the glutamate. Instead of becoming damaged or dying, the healthy cells maintained their normal functioning. Researchers say additional tests are needed to determine the best way to apply this knowledge in patients.

Traumatic brain injuries typically result from a blow to the head, which damages the brain and disrupts a person’s normal functioning. Concussions are the most well-known form of TBI. Even a mild TBI can cause ongoing disruptions in sleep, mood, and memory, as well as symptoms like pain, nausea, and dizziness. More severe TBIs can cause permanent damage or even death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that traumatic brain injuries kill 153 people a day in the United States, or 50,000 people per year. Hundreds more each day seek emergency room care for a nonfatal TBI.

The study was funded by a three-year grant from the New Jersey Commission on Brain Injury Research. Since 2004, the commission has given tens of millions of dollars to researchers. The money is raised by New Jersey’s $1 fee on certain traffic tickets.

If you have suffered a serious injury and you believe another’s negligence is to blame, contact the experienced personal injury attorneys at Rudnick, Addonizio, Pappa & Casazza P.C. today.

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