9 promising advances in the management of traumatic brain injury

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is simply disheartening. It is particularly devastating because it usually affects young people in their prime, with the consequent personal, social, and economic consequences. This blog has previously touched a little on TBI with the post titled Will Smith and chronic traumatic encephalopathy? This was a light-hearted take on concussion in sports, but traumatic brain injury is nothing but a serious burden. So what are the big brains in white coats doing to take down this colossus? Quite a lot it seems. Here, for a taster, are 9 promising advances in the management of traumatic brain injury.

brain 22. Affen Ajlfe on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/142299342@N06/32794072623

Better understanding of pathology

An amyloid PET imaging study by Gregory Scott and colleagues, published in the journal Neurology, reported a rather surprising link between the pathology seen in long-term survivors of traumatic brain injury, with the pathology seen in Alzheimers disease (AD). In both conditions, there is an increased burden of β-amyloid () in the brain, produced by damage to the nerve axons. The paper, titled Amyloid pathology and axonal injury after brain trauma, however notes that the pattern of deposition in TBI can be distinguished from the one seen in AD. The big question this finding raises is, does TBI eventually result in AD? The answer remains unclear, and this is discussed in the accompanying editorial titled Amyloid plaques in TBI.

By National Institute on Aging – http://nihseniorhealth.gov/alzheimersdisease/whatisalzheimersdisease/01.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25038029

Blood tests to detect concussion

The ideal biomarker for any disorder is one which is easy to detect, such as a simple blood test. A headline that screams Blood test may offer new way to detect concussions is therefore bound to attract attention. The benefits of such a test would be legion, especially if the test can reduce the requirement for CT scans which carry the risks of radiation exposure. This is where glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) may be promising. The research is published in the journal, Academic Research Medicine, with a rather convoluted title, Performance of Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein in Detecting Traumatic Intracranial Lesions on Computed Tomography in Children and Youth With Mild Head Trauma. The premise of the paper is the fact that GFAP is released into the blood stream from the glial cells of the brain soon after brain injury. What the authors therefore did was to take blood samples within 6 hours of TBI in children. And they demonstrated that GFAP levels are significantly higher following head injury, compared to injuries elsewhere in the body. This sounds exciting, but we have to wait and see where it takes us.

Diabetes test. Victor on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/v1ctor/10871254373

Advanced imaging

Brain Scars Detected in Concussions is the attention-grabbing headline for this one, published in MIT Technology Review. Follow the trail and it leads to the actual scientific paper in the journal Radiology, with a fairly straight-forward title, Findings from Structural MR Imaging in Military Traumatic Brain Injury The authors studied >800 subjects in what is the largest trial of traumatic brain injury in the military. Using high resolution 3T brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they demonstrated that even what is reported as mild brain injury leaves its marks on the brain, usually in the form of white matter hyperintense lesions and pituitary abnormalities. It simply goes to show that nothing is mild when it comes to the brain, the most complex entity in the universe.

Volume rendering of structural MRI scan. Proxy Design on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/proxyarch/5920559323

Implanted monitoring sensors

Current technologies which monitor patients with traumatic brain injury are, to say the least, cumbersome and very invasive. Imagine if all the tubes and wires could be replaced with microsensors, smaller than grains of rice, implanted in the brain. These would enable close monitoring of critical indices such as temperature and intracranial pressure. And imagine that these tiny sensors just dissolve away when they have done their job, leaving no damage. Now imagine that all this is reality. I came across this one from a CBS News piece titled Tiny implanted sensors monitor brain injuries, then dissolve away. Don’t scoff yet, it is grounded in a scientific paper published in the prestigious journal, Nature, under the title Bioresorbable silicon electronic sensors for the brain. But don’t get too exited yet, this is currently only being trialled in mice.

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=190358

Drugs to reduce brain inflammation

What if the inflammation that is set off following traumatic brain injury could be stopped in its tracks? Then a lot of the damage from brain injury could be avoided. Is there a drug that could do this? Well, it seems there is, and it is the humble blood pressure drug Telmisartan. This one came to my attention in Medical News Today, in a piece titled Hypertension drug reduces inflammation from traumatic brain injury. Telmisartan seemingly blocks the production of a pro-inflammatory protein in the liver. By doing this, Telmisartan may effectively mitigate brain damage, but only if it is administered very early after traumatic brain injury. The original paper is published in the prestigious journal, Brain, and it is titled Neurorestoration after traumatic brain injury through angiotensin II receptor blockage. Again, don’t get too warm and fuzzy about this yet; so far, only mice have seen the benefits.

Neural pathways in the brain. NICHD on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nichd/16672073333

Treatment of fatigue

Fatigue is a major long-term consequence of traumatic brain injury, impairing the quality of life of affected subjects in a very frustrating way. It therefore goes without saying, (even if it actually has to be said), that any intervention that alleviates the lethargy of TBI will be energising news. And an intervention seems to be looming in the horizon! Researchers writing in the journal, Acta Neurologica Scandinavica, have reported that Methylphenidate significantly improved fatigue in the 20 subjects they studied. Published under the title Long-term treatment with methylphenidate for fatigue after traumatic brain injury, the study is rather small, not enough to make us start dancing the jig yet. The authors have rightly called for larger randomized trials to corroborate their findings, and we are all waiting with bated breaths.

Ritalin. Ian Brown on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/igb/15713970479

Treatment of behavioural abnormalities

Many survivors of traumatic brain injury are left with behavioural disturbances which are baffling to the victim, and challenging to their families. Unfortunately, many of the drugs used to treat these behaviours are not effective. This is where some brilliant minds come in, with the idea of stimulating blood stem cell production to enhance behavioural recovery. I am not clear what inspired this idea, but the idea has inspired the paper titled Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor promotes behavioral recovery in a mouse model of traumatic brain injury. The authors report that the administration of G‐CSF for 3 days after mild TBI improved the performance of mice in a water maze…within 2 weeks. As the water maze is a test of learning and memory, and not of behaviour, I can only imagine the authors thought-surely only well-behaved mice will bother to take the test. It is however fascinating that G‐CSF treatment actually seems to fix brain damage in TBI, and it does so by stimulating astrocytosis and microgliosis, increasing the expression of neurotrophic factors, and generating new neurons in the hippocampus“. The promise, if translated to humans, should therefore go way beyond water mazes, but we have to wait and see.

By Ryddragyn at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2148036

Drugs to accelerate recovery

The idea behind using Etanercept to promote recovery from brain injury sound logical. A paper published in the journal, Clinical Drug Investigation, explains that brain injury sets off a chronic lingering inflammation which is driven by tumour necrosis factor (TNF). A TNF inhibitor will therefore be aptly placed to stop the inflammation. What better TNF inhibitor than Eternacept to try out, and what better way to deliver it than directly into the nervous system. And this is what the authors of the paper, titled Immediate neurological recovery following perispinal etanercept years after brain injury, did. And based on their findings, they made some very powerful claims: “a single dose of perispinal etanercept produced an immediate, profound, and sustained improvement in expressive aphasia, speech apraxia, and left hemiparesis in a patient with chronic, intractable, debilitating neurological dysfunction present for more than 3 years after acute brain injury”. A single patient, mind you. Not that I am sceptical by nature, but a larger study confirming this will be very reassuring.

By Doxepine – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6796200


And finally, that elusive holy grail of neurological therapeutics, neuroprotection. Well, does it exist? A review of the subject published in the journal, International Journal of Molecular Sciences, paints a rather gloomy picture of the current state of play. Titled Neuroprotective Strategies After Traumatic Brain Injury, it said “despite strong experimental data, more than 30 clinical trials of neuroprotection in TBI patients have failed“. But all is not lost. The authors promise that “recent changes in experimental approach and advances in clinical trial methodology have raised the potential for successful clinical translation”. Another review article, this time in the journal Critical Care, doesn’t offer any more cheery news about the current state of affairs when it says that the “use of these potential interventions in human randomized controlled studies has generally given disappointing results”. But the review, titled Neuroprotection in acute brain injury: an up-to-date review, goes through promising new strategies for neuroprotection following brain injury: these include hyperbaric oxygen, sex hormones, volatile anaesthetic agents, and mesenchymal stromal cells. The authors conclude on a positive note: “despite all the disappointments, there are many new therapeutic possibilities still to be explored and tested”.

brain 59. Affen Ajlfe on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/142299342@N06/32794069243/

What an optimistic way to end! We are not quite there yet, but these are encouraging steps.

8 things we now know about the toxicity of gadolinium to the brain

When it comes to imaging the nervous system, nothing but an MRI will do for the fastidious neurologist. CT has its uses, such as in detecting acute intracranial bleeding, but it lacks the sophistication to detect or differentiate between less glaring abnormalities. It also comes with a hefty radiation dose. MRI on the other hand, relying on powerful magnetic fields, is a ‘cleaner’ technology.

SLEIC 6. Penn State on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pennstatelive/4946556307

MRI scans on their own are however often insufficient to sate the craving of the neurologist for precision. A plain MRI scan, for example, will not tell if a multiple sclerosis lesion is old or new, and it may fail to detect subtle but significant lesions such as low grade brain tumours or lymphoma. Many lesions on routine MRI scan are also ill-defined and non-specific, and could pass for abscesses, vasculitis, inflammation or just small vessel disease (wear and tear) changes.

The Brain. I has it. Deradrian on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mgdtgd/3507973704

To silence the niggling doubts, the neurologist often requests an MRI scan with contrast. The idea is to use a dye to separate the wheat from the chaff, the active lesions from the silent ones. This works because sinister lesions have a bad and dangerous habit of disrupting the blood brain barrier. All such insurgencies across the hallowed BBB is sacrilege, a sign that something serious is afoot, (or is it underfoot?). Contrast dyes, on the other hand, are adept at detecting these breaches, traversing them, and staining the sinister lesion in the process. This stain appears on the MRI scan as contrast enhancement. MRI with contrast is therefore invaluable, and a positive study is a call to arms.

By © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Without any doubt, gadolinium is the favoured dye for contrast MRI scans. Gadolinium (Gd) is a lanthanide rare earth metal and it is one of the heavier elements of the periodic table with atomic number 64. It is named after the thrice-knighted Finnish chemist Johan Gadolin, who also discovered the first rare earth metal, yttrium.

Periodic table model. Canada Science and technology Museum on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/cstmweb/4888243867

We know a lot about some of the risks of injecting gadolinium into the body, such as its tendency to accumulate in people with kidney impairment (who cannot excrete it efficiently). We also know that it may cross the placenta to damage the developing baby. These are however hazards with simple and straight-forward solutions: avoid gadolinium in pregnancy, and don’t use it in people with poor renal function.

By Hi-Res Images ofChemical Elements – http://images-of-elements.com/gadolinium.php, CC BY 3.0, Link

Much more challenging is the problem of gadolinium deposition in the brain of people with normal renal function. This is concerning because it is unpredictable, and because it has the potential to compromise brain structure and function. This blog has previously asked the question, “Is gadolinium toxic?“. The question remains unanswered, and regulatory agencies are still studying the data to provide guidance to doctors. Patient groups on the other hand have been up in arms, as one would expect, impatiently waiting for answers. What then is the state of play with gadolinium? Should neurologists and their patients really be worried? Below are 8 things we now know about gadolinium and its potential brain toxicity.

By Peo at the Danish language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link


1. Gadolinium deposition is related to its insolubility at physiological pH

The toxic potential of gadolinium is thought to be the result of its insolubility at physiological pH. Furthermore, gadolinium competes against calcium, an element fundamental to cellular existence. This competition is obviously detrimental to the body.

064 Gadolinium-Periodic Table of Elements. Science Activism on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/137789813@N06/22951789105

2. The less stable gadolinium agents are the most toxic

There are two forms of gadolinium based contrast agents (GBCAs): the less stable linear GBCAs, and the more stable macrocyclic GBCAs. The linear GBCAs are more toxic, of which Gadodiamide (Omniscan) stands out. Other linear agents are gadobenate dimeglumine (MultiHance), gadopentetate dimeglumine (Magnevist), gadoversetamide (OptiMARK), gadoxetate (Eovist), and gadofosveset (Ablavar). The macrocyclic GBCAs, even though safer, are not entirely blameless. They include gadobuterol (Gadavist), gadoterate meglumine (Dotarem), and gadoteridol (ProHance). Therefore, choose your ‘gad’ wisely.

By زرشکOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link


3. Gadolinium deposits in favoured sites in the brain

It is now established that gadolinium deposits in three main brain areas. The most favoured site is the dentate nucleus of the cerebellum. Other popular regions are the globus pallidus and the pulvinar. This deposition is, paradoxically, visible on plain T1-weighted MRI scans where it shows as high signal intensity.

By Polygon data were generated by Database Center for Life Science(DBCLS)[2]. – Polygon data are from BodyParts3D[1], CC BY-SA 2.1 jp, Link

4. The risk of deposition depends on the number of injections

The risk of gadolinium deposition in the brain is higher with multiple administrations. Stated another way, and to stretch this paragraph out a bit longer, the more frequently contrast injections are given, the higher the chances gadolinium will stick to the brain. The possible risk threshold is 4 injections of gadolinium. The fewer the better…obviously!

Number-04. StefanSzczelkun on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stefan-szczelkun/3931901057

5. Gadolinium also deposits outside the brain

The favoured site of gadolinium deposition outside the brain is the kidney, where it causes nephrogenic systemic fibrosis, a scleroderma-like disorder. This however occurs mostly in people with renal impairment. Gadolinium also deposits in other organs outside the brain including bone, skin, and liver. (Strictly speaking, this item has nothing to do with the brain, but it helped to tot up the number to 8 in the title of this blog post, avoiding the use of the more sinister se7en).

By JudgefloroOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

 6. Harm from gadolinium brain deposition has not been established

Whilst we know for sure that gadolinium deposits in the nervous system, harm from deposition has not been definitively established. There are, however, reports that gadolinium deposition may produce muscle and eye symptoms, and chronic pain. There are also reports of cognitive impairment manifesting as reduced verbal fluency.

Words words words. Chris Blakeley on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/csb13/4276731632

7. Precautions may reduce the risk of gadolinium brain deposition

The current recommendation is not to withhold the appropriate use of gadolinium, but to observe simple precautions. Sensibly, use GBCAs only when absolutely necessary. Also consider preferentially using macrocyclic GBCAs and evaluate the necessity for giving repeated GBCA administrations.


By IntropinOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link


8. There are emerging ways to avoid gadolinium toxicity

The safest use of gadolinium is not to use it at all. There are some developments in the pipeline to achieve this, although probably not in the very near future. Such developments include manganese based contrast agents such as Mn-PyC3A. A less definitive option is to mitigate the effects of gadolinium by using chelating agents; two such potential agents are nanoparticles and 3,4,3-LI(1,2-HOPO).


Why not get the snapshot view of gadolinium toxicity in the neurochecklist:

Gadolinium-based contrast agent (GBCA) toxicity

…and leave a comment!


MRI scan. NIH Image Gallery on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nihgov/30805879596