Rutgers University researchers have discovered that lithium, a mood stabilizer used for decades to treat bipolar disorder and serious depression, may also help preserve brain function in patients who suffer traumatic brain injury (TBI).

TBI is caused by a blow to the head or other force that causes the brain to impact the skull. TBI disrupts normal brain function. It can result in memory loss, cognitive impairment, vision and hearing loss, depression, and personality changes. TBI is a major cause of death and disability, impacting more than 12,000 people a year in New Jersey alone.

Medications prescribed to treat TBI generally focus on symptoms and pain relief, rather than preventing further damage.

Rutgers researchers discovered that lithium, as well as rapamycin (an immunosuppressant used to treat cancer), protects healthy brain cells from a toxic buildup of chemicals that often results from a concussion. Under normal situations, the chemical glutamate is an important chemical for learning and memory. But a TBI can trigger a massive release of glutamate and the buildup becomes toxic, causing damage or death to the healthy cells.

In the Rutgers research, scientists discovered 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. This stopped cell damage and death.

The research was funded by a three-year grant from the New Jersey Commission on Brain Injury Research. It was led by Bonnie Firestein, a professor in Rutgers Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience. She said that in addressing how to reduce the toxic signals in the brain, researchers were able to sort out how the two drugs work to block the glutamate messages traveling from damaged to healthy cells. She noted that further research is needed to determine if the drugs could help prevent brain damage and nerve cell death in humans after a traumatic brain injury.

Firestein stated that concussion, the most common traumatic brain injury, affects thousands of children each year and it is critical to find drugs that work to prevent long-term damage.