A graphic multimillion-dollar ad campaign has pegged methamphetamine with a well-deserved bad reputation in Montana. But for researchers at the University of Montana's Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, meth represents a possible step forward in treating traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).
"When we're using methamphetamine to do something good, it shocks people," says David Poulsen, a research associate professor. "They think, 'How can that possibly be? This is the devil's drug, this is terrible stuff.' And when it's abused, it is...The difference between a cure and a poison is the dose."
Poulsen and post-doctoral student Tom Rau are currently heading a four-year-old study to determine the effectiveness of low-dose methamphetamine as a neuroprotector. The treatment—so far successful on lab rats—reduces the risks of lasting damage from TBIs and strokes, and potentially increases the amount of time doctors have to treat patients. It's an area of clinical science, Poulsen says, that has had physicians frustrated for decades.
"That's the thing we've been trying fairly unsuccessfully for years to deal with," says Carter Beck, a neurosurgeon at St. Patrick Hospital. "How do we prevent this secondary cascade of brain injury from occurring, from having people deteriorate in the hospital without us being able to intervene?"
Beck says he sees hundreds of patients each year who could stand to benefit from the research going on at UM. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Montana is ranked second in the nation for number of TBIs per capita, making the clinical applicability of low-dose methamphetamine particularly appealing to local physicians.
Even the U.S. Air Force has taken an interest in Poulsen and Rau's work. TBIs are one of the leading injuries suffered by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and late last month the Department of Defense awarded UM a $1.5 million grant for Poulsen to continue refining the dose regimen.
"The grant starts hopefully Nov. 1," Poulsen says. "So they're excited enough about the preliminary data to go on and invest in further studies in developing this."
The treatment is still a long ways from hospitals and battlefields. Poulsen has yet to conduct a phase-two human trial, requiring hundreds of patients and $10 million in additional funding. But the potential gains, he feels, far outweigh the costs.
"This is like falling into an open manhole and coming up with a golden nugget," Poulsen says.