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Approved mental health drug could be used to prevent damage after brain injury, study reveals

A drug currently used to treat mental illness may be able to reduce swelling and prevent further damage after suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI), a landmark study has found.

The University of Birmingham and Aston University, who co-published the research, said the finding offers hope to the 75 million victims of brain injury worldwide each year.

Known as trifluoperazine (TFP), the already-licensed anti-psychotic medicine is commonly used in the treatment of patients with schizophrenia. It works by altering the behaviour of “tiny water channel pores” in cells known as aquaporins.

But in tests on injured mice, the scientists found that animals treated with trifluoperazine recovered full movement and sensitivity in “as little as two weeks”, compared to a control group which continued to show motor and sensory impairment beyond six weeks after the injury.

The scientists believe the drug works in brain and spinal cord injuries by counteracting the cells’ normal reaction to a loss of oxygen caused by trauma. Under usual circumstances, the cells would quickly swell with water to protect the damaged area, but exerts pressure on the skull and spine causing further damage to fragile cells around the injured site.

Commenting on the breakthrough, Professor Roslyn Bill, of the Biosciences Research Group at Aston University, said: “Every year, millions of people of all ages suffer brain and spinal injuries, whether from falls, accidents, road traffic collisions, sports injuries or stroke. To date, their treatment options have been very limited and, in many cases, very risky.

“This discovery, based on a new understanding of how our cells work at the molecular level, gives injury victims and their doctors hope. By using a drug already licensed for human use, we have shown how it is possible to stop the swelling and pressure build-up in the CNS that is responsible for long-term harm.”

She added: “While further research will help us to refine our understanding, the exciting thing is that doctors could soon have an effective, non-invasive way of helping brain and spinal cord injury patients at their disposal.”

According to the latest statistics, there were 348,000 admissions to UK hospitals with an acquired brain injury in 2016-17 – the latest data available.

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