The drug is a mixture of caffeine and ethanol (alcohol), called caffeinol and it has already been shown to limit damage from ischaemic strokes in animal studies. It has also been shown to be safe in a small study of human stroke patients.
Researchers from the University of Texas Houston Medical School gave 'caffeinol' to 23 male and female stroke patients with an average age of 71. They found they were able to give the patients lower doses of the drug than animal studies had suggested, while still achieving the same blood levels of caffeinol that had been shown to offer protection in rats.
In those tests, an artery supplying blood to the brain was blocked, mimicking what happens in an ischaemic stroke. It was found the amount of brain damage was reduced by up to 80% if caffeinol was given within three hours.
Further research will now be carried out to test the drug's effectiveness in humans. Patients can already be given thrombolytic 'clot-busting' drugs, but their effectiveness depends on being given in the immediate aftermath of a stroke. The researchers found caffeinol could be safely given alongside thrombolytic drugs.
Professor of neurology James Grotta, who led the research, said the research had demonstrated that the combination of caffeine and ethanol might reduce the amount of damage after stroke. He added: "Neither caffeine or alcohol offered protection alone, but the combination was protective." But he said: "Alcohol does have the effect of opening up blood vessels and caffeine, which is beneficial in conditions like migraine, could improve blood flow. In addition, these are very safe drugs to give because - obviously - these are drugs which are used by everyone."
The research is published in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.