"It just raises a possibility," Tien said of the new study. "The message is that we should look at this more closely."
What would be needed would be more studies in both animals and humans, he said. "Then we might propose a trial to give alcohol to people who have brain injury."
The higher incidence of complications seen in people who have alcohol in their blood when they suffer brain injuries is understandable, Tien said. "People who drink and drive tend to have alcohol abuse or dependence problems, so they are more likely to have health issues," he said.
And alcohol has to be handled carefully in medicine and real life, Tien said. "The report was very careful to say that alcohol has a huge potential to destroy life," he said. "From a public health point of view, it is not something we should mess with. But ethanol may have a pharmacological role if administered in discrete amounts in certain circumstances."
Dr. M. Sean Grady, chairman of the department of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania, was even more cautious.
"I have a lot of caveats about the information they provide," he said. "Only half the people in the database had their blood alcohol measured, so we have to worry about their conclusions."
While Grady said "the novel use of a large database is a major contribution, I'm not confident that their observation is true or not."
Like Tien, Grady said more research on the issue is needed. "Instead of using an administrative database, we could do a number of clinical trials for traumatic brain injury collecting ethanol data as part of the studies," he said. "Those studies would have more detail and could give a better sense of whether ethanol plays a positive or negative role."
"Mechanism-wise, we need to figure out more
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