UK research study: dietary supplement creatine protects against traumatic brain injury

November 01, 2000

LEXINGTON, KY (Nov. 2, 2000) - Creatine, a food supplement frequently used by professional and amateur athletes, may prevent brain damage following traumatic brain injury, according to a new research study led by Stephen Scheff, Ph.D., professor, University of Kentucky Sanders-Brown Center on Aging and UK College of Medicine Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. The study was published in the November issue of Annals of Neurology.

Creatine is one of a class of molecules called amino acids. Creatine is produced naturally in the body in the liver, kidney and pancreas and is used as a way to store energy.

Many athletes now use creatine as a dietary supplement to increase muscle mass, strength, and the recovery time of muscles between bursts of activity.

Each year about 7 million people in North America experience traumatic brain injuries (TBI) caused by motor vehicle accidents, falls, assaults and sports-related activities. Estimated costs to treat these injuries range from $20 billion to $48 billion each year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 300,000 TBIs occur each year due to sports or recreational activities. Athletes, especially those participating in sports that are likely to involve blows to the head such as football, hockey, wrestling, skiing, baseball and boxing, often experience TBIs. Most of these TBIs are concussions. These concussions can result in subdural hematomas (bleeding under a membrane surrounding the brain), loss of cognitive function or even death.

TBI causes both primary and secondary damage. The primary damage occurs at the time of injury as a result of the trauma. Secondary damage develops following the injury and can occur as long as days after the initial trauma.

The cause of the secondary injury is not well understood, but appears to be associated with disruption of the regulation of calcium levels in brain cells following injury. Regulation of calcium levels is crucial to mitochondrial function and to proper adenosine triphosphate (ATP) synthesis and use. ATP is a molecule that is present in all living cells and operates as the energy source for the majority of the chemical reactions which take place in cells.

Scheff's research team demonstrated that brain damage in mice was reduced 21 percent and 36 percent when creatine was administered three and five days before the TBI respectively. The data also show that in rats fed a diet supplemented with creatine for four weeks before TBI, brain damage was reduced 50 percent when compared to rats fed a regular diet.

"Our data show that creatine supplementation protects against secondary damage associated with TBI by inhibiting the calcium-induced activation of a protein in the mitochondrial membrane, which preserves proper function of the mitochondria. The damage also is reduced because creatine acts to maintain appropriate amounts of ATP in brain cells," Scheff said.

"This strongly suggests that athletes may be gaining a neuroprotective benefit inadvertently by chronically supplementing their diet with creatine," Scheff said.

University of Kentucky Medical Center

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