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Antibiotics may be useful in treating neurological conditions - research

13 January, 2005

Antibiotics, such
as penicillin, may help prevent nerve damage in a wide variety of
neurological conditions including epilepsy, according to new research
published in the journal Nature.

Researchers based at Johns Hopkins University
discovered the effects of antibiotics during experiments into
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease)
and that these effects are unrelated to the antibiotics' ability to
kill bacteria. The drugs increase the number of transporters, chemicals
that remove glutamate from nerves. In the brain, glutamate normally
excites nerves so that electrical signals can travel from one to the
next. However, too much of the chemical can overstimulate and kill
nerves.

In
mice with the equivalent of ALS, daily injections of the antibiotic
ceftriaxone started just as symptoms started to surface. This delayed
both nerve damage and symptoms and extended survival by ten days
compared to untreated animals.

The
researchers discovered that antibiotics activate the gene encoding
glutamate's main transporter in brain cells. Rats and mice that
received daily ceftriaxone for up to a week had triple the usual amount
of the transporter, known as GLT1, in their brain cells, an effect that
lasted for up to three months after treatment.

The
researchers said that a large clinical trial planned for this year will
help determine the best dose of and schedule for ceftriaxone in people
with ALS, and will measure whether the known risks of long-term
antibiotic treatment are worth it.

Of
the antibiotics, penicillin protected nerve cells best in laboratory
dishes but ceftriaxone had the best results in mice, probably because
it more easily crosses into the brain from the blood, the researchers
report.

Study co-author Dr Jeffrey Rothstein said:

"We're
very excited by these drugs' abilities. They show for the first time
that drugs, not just genetic engineering, can increase numbers of
specific transporters in brain cells.

"It
would be extremely premature for patients to ask for or take
antibiotics on their own. Only a clinical trial can prove whether one
of these antibiotics can help and is safe if taken for a long time."