The origin of an innate ability the brain has to protect itself from damage that occurs in stroke has been explained for the first time.
The Oxford University researchers hope that harnessing this inbuilt biological mechanism, identified in rats, could help in treating stroke and preventing other neurodegenerative diseases in the future.
'We have shown for the first time that the brain has mechanisms that it can use to protect itself and keep brain cells alive,' says Professor Alastair Buchan, Head of the Medical Sciences Division and Dean of the Medical School at Oxford University, who led the work.
The researchers report their findings in the journal Nature Medicine and were funded by the UK Medical Research Council and National Institute for Health Research.
Stroke is the third most common cause of death in the UK. Every year around 150,000 people in the UK have a stroke.
It occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off. When this happens, brain cells are deprived of the oxygen and nutrients they need to function properly, and they begin to die.
'Time is brain, and the clock has started immediately after the onset of a stroke. Cells will start to die somewhere from minutes to at most 1 or 2 hours after the stroke,' says Professor Buchan.
This explains why treatment for stroke is so dependent on speed. The faster someone can reach hospital, be scanned and have drugs administered to dissolve any blood clot and get the blood flow re-started, the less damage to brain cells there will be.
It has also motivated a so-far unsuccessful search for 'neuroprotectants': drugs that can buy time and help the brain cells, or neurons, cope with damage and recover afterwards.
The Oxford University research group have now identified the first example of the brain having its own built-in form of neuroprotection, so-called 'endogenous neuroprotection'.
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