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IMPORTANCE: There is limited information about the effect of erythropoietin or a high hemoglobin transfusion threshold after a traumatic brain injury.

OBJECTIVE: To compare the effects of erythropoietin and 2 hemoglobin transfusion thresholds (7 and 10 g/dL) on neurological recovery after traumatic brain injury.

DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS: Randomized clinical trial of 200 patients (erythropoietin, n = 102; placebo, n = 98) with closed head injury who were unable to follow commands and were enrolled within 6 hours of injury at neurosurgical intensive care units in 2 US level I trauma centers between May 2006 and August 2012. The study used a factorial design to test whether erythropoietin would fail to improve favorable outcomes by 20% and whether a hemoglobin transfusion threshold of greater than 10 g/dL would increase favorable outcomes without increasing complications. Erythropoietin or placebo was initially dosed daily for 3 days and then weekly for 2 more weeks (n = 74) and then the 24- and 48-hour doses were stopped for the remainder of the patients (n = 126). There were 99 patients assigned to a hemoglobin transfusion threshold of 7 g/dL and 101 patients assigned to 10 g/dL.

INTERVENTIONS: Intravenous erythropoietin (500 IU/kg per dose) or saline. Transfusion threshold maintained with packed red blood cells.

MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES: Glasgow Outcome Scale score dichotomized as favorable (good recovery and moderate disability) or unfavorable (severe disability, vegetative, or dead) at 6 months postinjury.

RESULTS: There was no interaction between erythropoietin and hemoglobin transfusion threshold. Compared with placebo (favorable outcome rate: 34/89 [38.2%; 95% CI, 28.1% to 49.1%]), both erythropoietin groups were futile (first dosing regimen: 17/35 [48.6%; 95% CI, 31.4% to 66.0%], P = .13; second dosing regimen: 17/57 [29.8%; 95% CI, 18.4% to 43.4%], P < .001). Favorable outcome rates were 37/87 (42.5%) for the hemoglobin transfusion threshold of 7 g/dL and 31/94 (33.0%) for 10 g/dL (95% CI for the difference, -0.06 to 0.25, P = .28). There was a higher incidence of thromboembolic events for the transfusion threshold of 10 g/dL (22/101 [21.8%] vs 8/99 [8.1%] for the threshold of 7 g/dL, odds ratio, 0.32 [95% CI, 0.12 to 0.79], P = .009).

CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: In patients with closed head injury, neither the administration of erythropoietin nor maintaining hemoglobin concentration of greater than 10 g/dL resulted in improved neurological outcome at 6 months. The transfusion threshold of 10 g/dL was associated with a higher incidence of adverse events. These findings do not support either approach in this setting.

TRIAL REGISTRATION: Identifier: NCT00313716

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