The team, led by Professor Seong-Seng Tan, has discovered that this naturally occurring protein, called BP5, is produced more than usual in brain cells after they have experienced traumatic injury.
Prof Tan said that because this protein is "over-expressed", it can prevent the neuron's cells from dying, thus reducing brain damage.
"BP5's pattern of expression indicates that it allows neurons to survive in a stressed environment," Prof Tan said.
"We have tested this hypothesis in mice by expressing BP5 in stressed neurons and this proof-of-principle experiment showed that BP5 can prevent neurons from undergoing cell death.
"BP5 works by using the cell's waste disposal system to flush away toxic and damaged proteins produced after injury, which appears to tip the balance towards nerve cell survival, instead of death," he said.
Prof Tan is the first to show that this mechanism can be fruitfully manipulated to prevent brain cells from dying. For this reason, his work has been published by the Journal of Neuroscience, the peak body journal of the American Society for Neuroscience.
"Now our challenge is to understand how BP5 performs it neuron-saving function and develop drugs that can do the same thing," Prof Tan said.
"Ultimately, we want to deliver the drug to patients suffering brain injury from stroke or trauma so save as many neurons as possible.
"Such a drug would limit damage to the brain after the injury, as well as the subsequent few days when injured nerves release 'suicide factors' that cause surrounding, healthy neurons to die en masse.
"This treatment to prevent brain damage has wide application and could be given to car accident and assault victims, people undergoing radiotherapy for brain tumours, premature babies that need to be induced, and stroke patients.
"While we still have a long way to go before such a drug will be available, this research is a promising step forward in the development of an effective treatment for traumatic brain injury," Prof Tan said.
Prof Tan's discovery was assisted by funding from the Myer Family Foundation, the Victorian Trauma Foundation, and the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. Finding an effective treatment for brain injury is urgent and this year, the Victorian State Government has committed $63 million to boost research into brain and spinal nerve injuries.
Prof Tan's team at the Howard Florey Institute was assisted by researchers from the Alfred Trauma Research Centre, La Trobe University, Walter and Eliza Hall Research Institute of Medical Research and The Hanson Centre in Adelaide.
The Howard Florey Institute is Australia's leading brain research centre. Its scientists undertake clinical and applied research that can be developed into treatments to combat brain disorders, and new medical practices. Their discoveries will improve the lives of those directly, and indirectly, affected by brain and mind disorders in Australia, and around the world. The Florey's research areas cover a variety of brain and mind disorders including Parkinson's disease, stroke, motor neuron disease, addiction, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, autism and dementia.
Prof Tan is available for photos and interviews on Tuesday 11 July.
Contact Merrin Rafferty on +61 400 829 601 to make arrangements.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.