Nobody ever thought head trauma was a good thing, but ongoing studies make it clear just how bad it can be. Now, researchers have begun testing an experimental drug that may help prevent some of the injury’s negative effects. Their results were recently published in the journal PLoS One.

The effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI) can last a lifetime. At the moment, according to study co-author Linda Van Eldik, treatment options for TBI are limited. "Traumatic brain injury represents a major unmet medical need, as there is currently no effective therapy to prevent the increased risk of dementia and other neurologic complications, such as post-traumatic epilepsy, neuropsychiatric disorders, and post concussive symptoms such as headaches, sleep disturbances, memory problems, dizziness, and irritability," she said in a press release

Van Eldik and her colleagues are working to develop a drug to nip some of those long-term effects in the bud. "Following a head injury, the body mobilizes immune cells [called cytokines] to respond to the trauma and jump-start the healing process," she said. "Although these immune cells help repair the injury, they also cause inflammation that may damage the tissuea sort of double-edged sword."

The researchers hope to hold on to the benefits of immune response while blocking the inflammation that can lead to later problems. They believe the best candidate for this process may be a compound called MW151. Van Eldik has been working with MW151 for years. In a 2007 test, Van Eldik and her colleagues found that MW151 was able to hold off the pro-inflammatory cytokines while preserving the immune system’s cell-repair abilities. These tests were limited to a type of TBI called closed head injury. Van Eldik and her colleagues wanted to see if it would work in other types. 

The researchers ran new tests, this time looking at diffuse TBI (injury spread across a wide area of the brain, as opposed to a small section). They used a technique called midline fluid percussion to induce diffuse brain injuries in lab mice, then dosed the mice with MW151. Some of the mice were euthanized, and their brains, blood, and livers examined to determine if the drug was effective and safe. Other mice were given problem-solving tests to see if the drug had protected their ability to learn. The researchers found that even low doses of MW151 suppressed inflammatory proteins without interfering with cell repair.

"We were delighted to see that MW151 is effective in more than one model of TBI," lead author Adam Bachstetter said in the press release. "MW151 appears to dampen down the detrimental inflammatory responses without suppressing the normal functions that the cells need to maintain health."

MW151 seems like a good candidate so far, but to date, the researchers have only tested the drug on rodents. They hope to progress to clinical trials in the next few years.