Researcher David Poulsen poses with images of sliced rat brains. The top row was treated with methamphetamine six hours after a stroke, while the bottom row received saline. White areas reveal dead or damaged tissue. (Todd Goodrich/University of Montana)
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The Army is funding early research into whether methamphetamines can treat traumatic brain injuries, one of the so-called invisible wounds afflicting soldiers.
Under a $1 million Army grant, University of Montana researchers are examining how doses far lower than amounts abused on the street can act as a neuroprotectant, said David Poulsen, who is leading the project at UM.
“The difference between the poison and the cure is the dose,” Poulsen said in a phone interview with Army Times.
Poulsen hopes to help the military develop a drug that can arrest brain damage in soldiers soon after exposure to a roadside bomb blast. The drug would be administered through an intravenous line.
Poulsen likened a bomb blast to a lightning bolt that starts a fire in the brain. The blast itself is damaging, but it also causes the brain to release harmful neurochemicals, which cause a cascade of damage.
Poulsen’s lab found that methamphetamine triggers the release of other brain chemicals called catecholamines that tell a recently damaged brain to halt its self-destructive cascade.
In 2011, a $1.5 million Army grant helped Poulsen’s lab find that low doses of methamphetamine given to rodents within 12 hours after a traumatic brain injury or stroke significantly reduce brain damage and impairment. The research involved rat brain tissue samples.
At high doses, the drug worsened the strokes, but at low doses, it acted as a neuroprotectant.
The effective doses were similar to those used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, he said.
The $1 million Army grant, awarded in August, will fund a deeper analysis of the drug in preparation for eventual testing in humans.
In this next stage, Poulsen’s lab will conduct tests to see whether the drug works in female and older rats.
“Before you test in humans, you want to have the drug fully analyzed,” Poulsen said.
Poulsen expects to hear next month whether his team will receive a $6 million grant from the Joint Warfighter Medical Research Program, which would support a safety study in humans that is required by the Food and Drug Administration.
That research, if funding is approved, would focus on TBI patients at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Poulsen said.