DENVER (CBS4) – Concussions and brain injuries account for approximately 27,000 emergency room visits in Colorado alone. Right now, doctors can only recommend rest and a slow return to activity as a means of treatment. But researchers are getting closer to coming up with drug treatments that promise to protect brain function after an injury.
For researchers at the University of Texas Sciences Center in San Antonio, it was a happy accident.
“We thought we were coming up with an anti-cancer approach,” said James Lechleiter, PhD, a professor and researcher at the university.
Lechleiter found a drug that stimulates a certain kind of brain cell called astrocytes. Astrocytes are among the glial cells that make up the matter around the neurons in the brain. The drug was supposed to kill astrocytes and cure cancer, but that’s not what happened.
“We stimulated the cell type, and rather than actually dying more quickly, they actually lived longer. They got tougher. And that actually surprised us,” Lechleiter told CBS4.
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The drug increases the number of astrocytes in the brain, and then they can protect the neurons from damage after an injury.
“It’s super-exciting… because I think he’s really tapped into an area of neuroscience that is just now starting to explode,” said Kim Gorgens, PhD, a professor and brain injury researcher at the University of Denver.
Gorgens tells CBS4 that this is an exciting time in neuroscience because new technology and new research dollars are leading to a new understanding of how the brain works. She calls astrocytes and glial cells the new frontier of brain research.
“These are the cells, for time immemorial, we assumed did nothing. Glial means glue, and we just thought of them as just these support cells,” Gorgens said.
London Glenn could have used a treatment drug for his concussion last year. The 13-year-old missed nine weeks of school after a hard hit at football practice.
“I spun around and I fell backwards, and my head whiplashed into the ground,” Glenn told CBS4.
Brain injury happens in phases. There is the initial hit that can cause bruising and swelling, and then later cell loss can happen, which leads to the loss of connection between cells.
“If something was too loud, I’d start getting a terrible headache. Or if it was a too bright light, I would just start getting a headache,” Glenn said.
The drug Lechleiter is developing could potentially protect the brain from some of that damage.
The faster that you get to the clinic, or take the pill, or let your brain naturally heal, the better off you’re going to be,” Lechleiter said.
Lechleiter’s drug is in the early testing phase right now, so it could be years before it’s available to the general public.
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— Written for CBSDenver.com by Special Projects Producer Libby Smith