Associate Professor Lindy Fitzgerald, from UWA's School of Animal Biology, said that following accidents causing injury to a person's central nervous system, the damage spread beyond the area of impact, affecting surrounding nerve tissues.
Professor Fitzgerald is leading a team of UWA researchers investigating the issue of ‘spreading' or secondary nerve damage. Supported by the Neurotrauma Research Program of Western Australia (NRP), an initiative funded by the Road Safety Council, the research is also relevant to stroke, experienced by more than 5,000 Western Australians each year.
"When the central nervous system is injured, the damage spreads, involving nerve tissue that survived the original impact," Professor Fitzgerald said. "In the days, weeks and months after injury, cells continue to die and nerve function deteriorates.
"Limiting this ‘spreading' damage would help to preserve cells, along with a significant amount of function. In the optic nerve, this could mean the difference between partial sight and complete blindness."
Each year in WA alone, around 600 people suffer severe traumatic brain injuries and around 50 people are left paralysed by spinal cord injury. Many central nervous system injuries are caused by road crashes.
The researchers have shown that when a nerve is wounded, the ongoing damage is likely due to the spread of excess calcium and oxidative stress in surrounding nerve tissue. By using multiple inhibitors to block excess calcium from entering cells, the damaging oxidation process is reduced, preserving the structure and function of the nerve. The findings were published recently in Neuropharmacology and presented at the Australasian Neuroscience Society annual meeting in Adelaide.
"So far we have conducted these studies in the laboratory, but the results may have important implications for the treatment of patients who suffer neurotrauma," Professor Fitzgerald said.
The Road Safety Council provides funds from its Road Trauma Trust Account for the NRP, which is administered by the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research. In December 2013, 10 new NRP grants were awarded to UWA scientists to conduct further research in brain and spinal cord injury and to help prevent road crashes that so often result in neurotrauma.