Traumatic brain injury is one of the most devastating things that can happen to the victim of a traffic accident. The physical effects are horrific enough, but every good brain injury attorney could also testify to the long term financial, emotional and psychological damage done; not just to the victim, but also to their extended family.
Until very recently, it was more or less accepted that damage to the brain was irreversible, in spite of constant research into new therapies and techniques to treat brain injuries. Stem cell research has tantalized scientists, because when used on animals, stem cell implantation has been shown to substantially improve brain function, but exactly how stem cells can aid in healing traumatic brain injuries has remained something of a mystery.
What exactly are stem cells?
In the simplest terms, stem cells are “young” cells that are still in the process of developing but have not yet taken their final form. Scientists have been working on ways of using these “blank” cells as building blocks which can be used to repair or even replace damaged cells in virtually any part of the body. No one knew precisely why these stem cells could be manipulated, but University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) researchers have gone a long way towards solving that scientific puzzle. They have identified key molecular mechanisms that allow stem cells to assist in recovery from brain injuries.
Damage control and limitation
One of the reasons brain injuries are so hard to heal is that much of the damage is done to the little filaments that extend out from the main bodies of the brain’s neurons. These filaments are known as axons and dendrites, and the problem with brain trauma is that after the initial damage, these filaments retract and withdraw back into the bodies of the neurons. This results in loss of neuron to neuron communication, of which axons and dendrites form the basis. Once the axons and dendrites withdraw, neuron function is lost.
According to UTMB Professor Ping Wu, their recent study “found that…stem cell transplantation both prevents further axonal injury and (also) promotes axonal regrowth, through a number of previously unknown molecular mechanisms.” To put it in simple terms, the stem cell implants not only act as the medicine providing the cure, but they also prevent things getting worse.
Professor Wu said his team had already discovered in a previous work that stem cells used in a neural application secrete a substance called glial derived neurotrophic factor—let’s just call it GDNF—and they also felt this substance helped injured rats recover from brain trauma. Wu’s group used a special technique to compare injured rats’ brains with injured brains that had received implanted stem cells.
The study concluded that some 400 different proteins respond differently after brain injury and after grafting with stem cells. One of these is called an alpha-smooth muscle actin protein, and this had never before been reported in previous neuron tests. Many of the other proteins which reacted to stem cell implantation are closely related to the axons and dendrites referred to earlier. The stem cells dramatically lowered the levels of alpha-smooth muscle actin that had been raised after the initial trauma.
But will it work on humans?
The researchers performed an ingeniousous test to see if similar results could be gained with human brain cells, but without actually trying it on a human. A brain injury attorney knows that it’s the dramatic force of sudden compression that causes serious brain trauma in a traffic accident. The scientists were able to simulate this sudden compression by taking human neurons and placing them on a flexible membrane. The membrane was then suddenly stretched with a precisely measured puff of gas.
The results matched those found in the rat experiments. The GDNF protected the axons and dendrites from additional damage after the initial trauma and reduced levels of the alpha-smooth muscle actin protein, which had risen dramatically after the staged “accident.” Further analysis found evidence linking alpha-smooth muscle actin with a small protein called RhoA that blocks the growth of axons after injury.
Finally, the team discovered one component of a protein known as calcineurin that actually works with GDNF to protect those vital axons and dendrites after a brain injury. “This kind of detailed study is essential to developing safe and effective therapies for traumatic brain injury,” said Professor Wu. “We’re quite excited about these discoveries.”
Stem cell research has been controversial at times, while being hailed as potentially one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of all times. Brain injuries are a horrible possibility that become a reality for hundreds of road users every year, and any means of curing or at least limiting their effects should be explored. In Oregon, cyclists and pedestrians who have been knocked down by motor vehicles, as well as the victims of violent vehicle-to-vehicle collisions, all too frequently suffer one of these catastrophic injuries, and in most cases, it’s their families that are left to pick up the pieces, financially and otherwise. If someone in your family has suffered such a tragic and traumatic injury, then you should immediately contact a competent and experienced Portland brain injury attorney, who will listen with compassion and understanding to what has happened to you and your family, then work tirelessly to get you the compensation you and your loved ones will need.