Share this article

print logo

Cheap flu drug found to speed recovery in severe brain injuries

Researchers are reporting the first treatment to speed recovery from severe brain injuries caused by falls and car crashes: a cheap flu medicine whose side benefits were discovered by accident decades ago.

Severely injured patients who were given amantadine got better faster than those who received a dummy medicine. After four weeks, more people in the flu drug group could give reliable yes-and-no answers, follow commands or use a spoon or hairbrush -- things that few of them could do at the start. Far fewer patients who got amantadine remained in a vegetative state, 17 percent versus 32 percent.

"This drug moved the needle in terms of speeding patient recovery, and that's not been shown before," said neuropsychologist Joseph Giacino of Boston's Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, co-leader of the study. He added: "It really does provide hope for a population that is viewed in many places as hopeless."

Many doctors began using amantadine for brain injuries years ago, but until now there's never been a big study to show that it works. The results of the federally funded study appear in today's New England Journal of Medicine. A neurologist who wasn't involved in the research called it an important step. But many questions remain, including whether people less severely injured would benefit, and whether amantadine actually improves patients' long-term outcome or just speeds up their recovery.

Amantadine, an inexpensive generic, was approved for the flu in the mid-1960s. The first inkling that it might have other uses came a few years later when it appeared to improve Parkinson's symptoms in nursing home patients who got it. It was found to have an effect on the brain's dopamine system, whose many functions include movement and alertness, and it was later approved for Parkinson's.

The study was done in the United States, Denmark and Germany and involved 184 severely disabled patients, about 36 years old on average.

They were randomly assigned to receive amantadine or a dummy drug daily for four weeks. Both groups made small but significant improvement, but the rate of recovery was faster in the group getting amantadine. When treatment stopped, recovery in the drug group slowed. Two weeks later, the level of recovery in the two groups was about the same.