UBC researchers pave the way for preventative drug for severe brain damage

VANCOUVER – A team of University of British Columbia researchers have made a discovery around the cause of brain swelling after head trauma. Their research paves the way for a preventative drug treatment for severe brain damage following stroke, infection, head injury or cardiac arrest.

Scientists from the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health (DMCBH), a partnership of UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health, found that by turning off a single gene they were able to successfully stop swelling in rodent brains.

Brain swelling can become life-threatening within days of a head injury and is caused by sodium chloride drawing water into the nerve cells. Cytotoxic edema, brain swelling, eventually kills the brain cells.

“We’ve known for years that sodium chloride accumulation in neurons is responsible for brain swelling, but now we know how it’s getting into cells, and we have a target to stop it,” said brain researcher Brian MacVicar, co-director of DMCBH with the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute and the study’s principal investigator, in a release.

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The team looked at events that took place within individual brain cells as they swelled and then switched off the expression of different genes. They were then able to pinpoint a single protein that acts as a channel for chloride. By turning off the chloride channel, the accumulation of fluid into the cells was halted, and nerve cells no longer died.

“It was quite a surprising result, because we had few indications as to what this protein did in the brain,” said Ravi Rungta, then a graduate student in the MacVicar lab and the paper’s lead author.

The discovery has provided a target for drug development.

“This discovery is significant because it gives us a specific target – now that we know what we’re shooting at, we just need the ammunition,” said MacVicar. “That’s what we’re doing now: looking for drugs to inhibit the chloride channel.”