The link between traumatic brain injuries and epilepsy has been well documented, but researchers have only recently found an explanation for why up to 50 percent of people who suffer brain trauma are at risk of developing injury which they hope will lead to the creation of an emergency therapy to lower the risk and protect the brain.
In 2012, Daniela Kaufer and Alon Friedman published a study which could potentially explain the increased risk of epilepsy in the aftermath of brain trauma. The researchers examined what happens to the brain’s protective sheath, known as the blood-brain barrier, when it is compromised by a brain injury.
Their findings said that brain injury patients were at higher risk of seizures if the brain had been exposed to blood that had previously circulated through the body. Hiding in that blood is albumin, the most abundant protein in the blood. Kaufer and Friedman believe albumin is responsible for increased epilepsy chances.
“We were surprised, even a little disappointed, that it was such a common component of the blood—nothing exotic at all—that led to epilepsy,” Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology, told UC Berkeley.
Albumin is made in the liver and is an essential part in transporting numerous other proteins throughout the body. It is absolutely required for a healthy body, but it can turn dangerous if it is allowed to pass through the blood-brain barrier.
Following brain trauma, the blood-brain barrier frequently allows extra albumin into the brain in an effort to speed up the signaling between neurons. However, when neurons become overexcited it can cause seizures.
A little more than a year after their findings were published in the journal Glia, Kaufer and Friedman are trying to turn their findings into an emergency therapy to prevent damage to the brain’s gray matter.
Albumin could potentially be an important part of the brain’s response when it recognizes trauma, but when it interacts with the cell protein called TGF-beta receptors, it can overload the brain with an overabundance of signals firing off. But, Kaufer and Friedman have identified a prescription drug used to treat high blood pressure that also blocks TGF-beta receptors from signaling.
If found to be an effective way of preventing seizures and further brain damage, doctors may be ab.e to use MRI scans to asses the state of the blood-brain barrier immediately after an injury and administer a treatment that would greatly reduce the risk of developing epilepsy.
“Right now, if someone comes to the emergency room with traumatic brain injury, they have a 10 to 50 percent chance of developing epilepsy. But you don’t know which ones, nor do you have a way of preventing it. And epilepsy from brain injuries is the type most unresponsive to drugs,” Kaufer said. “I’m very hopeful that our research can spare these patients the added trauma of epilepsy.”