Study: Alcohol May Help People With Traumatic Brain Injury

People who suffer a traumatic brain injury from a car crash or other mishap are more apt to survive if they had been drinking at the time of the injury, according to a study published Monday.

The finding "raises the intriguing possibility" that giving alcohol to brain injured patients may improve outcome, the study team suggests in the Archives of Surgery.

Alcohol and driving "is and will always continue to be bad — it contributes to over 40 percent of traffic-related fatalities," first author Dr. Ali Salim of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles emphasized in an email to Reuters Health.

"However, of those patients with moderate to severe traumatic brain injury who survive their initial insult, those with alcohol in their system seem to have a slight survival advantage compared to those without alcohol in their system," Salim noted.

Among a little more than 38,000 people who suffered moderate to severe brain trauma between 2000 and 2005, 38 percent had alcohol in their system when they arrived at the hospital.

Compared to people who hadn't been drinking before the accident, those who had been drinking were younger (average age 37 years vs. 44 years) and they had less severe injuries. The traumatic brain injured drinkers also spent less time on a ventilator and less time in the intensive care unit.

And, according to Salim and his colleagues, fewer of the drinkers than the non-drinkers died in the hospital (7.7 percent compared with 9.7 percent).

However, the lower death rate among the drinkers was "tempered" by an apparent increase in complications for patients who had been drinking before the accident, the investigators note.

Exactly how alcohol may protect the brain after trauma is unknown. One thought is that alcohol may lessen the body's inflammatory response to the injury.

"There still needs to be further investigation as to the mechanisms of this association we found before we can consider this as a treatment option," Salim emphasized.

SOURCE: Archives of Surgery, September 2009.