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

Neuroprotection

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.

Keeping up with the latest practical guidelines in neurology

Neurologists breathe guidelines. And they churn them out at a breathtaking pace. It is extremely difficult keeping up with what’s in, what’s out, and what’s back in again! Often the new guidelines add nothing new, or the important points are buried in sheafs of text justifying the guidelines.

But we can’t get away from them. How then do neurologists keep up, short of becoming paranoid? By becoming obsessive! In developing neurochecklists I had no idea keeping up with the guidelines would be a challenging task because they are released in quick succession. I have looked back to see which are the latest practical guidelines, released in the last 12 months or so. Here they are by disease… but be quick before the guideline-masters revise them…again!

Epilepsy

The American Academy of Neurology (AAN) and the American Epilepsy Society published their 1st seizure management guidelines in Neurology. Among the key recommendations are to inform patients of a 2-year recurrence risk of 21-45%, and that a nocturnal seizure is among the usual culprits that increase the risk. The vexing question of whether to treat a 1st unprovoked seizure remains that-vexing.

Not to be outdone, the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE) released it’s evidence-based guidelines and recommendations for the management of infantile seizures. Published in Epilepsia in late 2015, it shows that Levetiracetam is tops for both focal and generalised seizures. It also confirmed the  hard-earned place of Stiripentol alongside Valproate and Clobazam for Dravet syndrome. It is open access so well-worth a detailed look.

 

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD)

Steroids are now standard treatment in Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy (DMD). A recent practice guideline update on corticosteroids in Duchenne’s highlights this, and it also indicates the strength of evidence for the different benefits. There is Level B evidence that steroids improve strength and lung function, and Level C for  delaying scoliosis and cardiomyopathy. Enough to encourage any doubters out there.

Facio-scapulo-humeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD)

Not one I thought had guidelines, but this FSHD diagnosis and management guidelines turned out to be quite useful. The guidelines address four key areas-diagnosis, predictors of severity, surveillance for complications, and treatment. And if you like flow charts, there is an excellent one here. A lot of helpful tips here for example, subjects with large D4Z4 gene deletions are more prone to earlier and more severe disability, and these patients should be reviewed by a retinal specialist.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) 

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is one of the most shifty conditions when it comes to guidelines, both diagnostic and management. Take the latest NICE MS guidelines, 39 pages long. All sensible stuff mind you, with time-restricted targets such as 6 weeks for a post-diagnosis follow-up, and 2 weeks to treat a relapse. Mind you, just to keep neurologists on their toes!

MS diagnosis and follow up is often the game of counting lesions on MRI scans. The question of what to count, and when to do so, is addressed in the recent MAGNIMS MS consensus guidelines. More recommendations than guidelines, these did not challenge the sacrosanct MacDonald criteria for dissemination in time, but tinker with dissemination in place. They suggest, for example, that optic nerve lesions be counted. The MAGNIMS consensus guidelines on the use of MRI goes on to stipulate when and how to count lesions throughout the course of MS. Not an easy bedtime read.

Not far behind MAGNIMS, the Association of British Neurologists (ABN) released their revised 2015 guidelines for prescribing disease-modifying treatments in MS. The guidelines classify DMT’s by efficacyAlemtuzumab and Natalizumab triumphing here. We also learn which DMTs to use in different patient groups.

Finally, Neurology published guidelines on rehabilitation in MS. Unfortunately there are quite a few qualifying ‘possibles‘ and ‘probables‘ which water down the strength of most of the recommendations. But what else do we have to go by?

Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP)

The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry (JNNP) published a review of CIDP in February 2015. It covers everything ”from bench to bedside”, but heavily skewed towards the former. It confirms that CIDP is a “spectrum of related conditions”, great news for splitters, and disappointing for lumpers. I personally struggle with the concepts of sensory and focal CIDP, have never diagnosed CANOMAD, but never tire of listening to Michael Lunn on VEGF, or be fascinated by the links between CIDP and POEMS syndrome. The review, an editors choice, is open access, and is backed by the authority of Richard Hughes; you really have no choice but to read it!

Unruptured intracranial aneurysms

The America Stroke Association (ASA) published new guidelines on management of unruptured aneurysms in a June 2015 issue of Stroke. It gives a comprehensive review of cerebral aneurysms, addressing the “presentation, natural history, epidemiology, risk factors, screening, diagnosis, imaging and outcomes from surgical and endovascular treatment“. It also suffices for a review article. Some recommendations are easily overlooked such as counsel against smoking and monitor for hypertension (evidence level B). Some important recommendations however have weak evidence, for example surveillance imaging after endovascular treatment (evidence level C).

The guidelines still advocate screening if there are 2 or more affected first degree family members. (I confess my threshold is lower than this). The extensive list of at-risk conditions for aneurysms include the usual suspects such as adult polycystic kidney disease and fibromuscular dysplasia. New culprits (at least to me) are microcephalic osteodysplastic primordial dwarfism, Noonan syndrome, and α-glucosidase deficiency.

 

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36822177
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36822177
Stroke 

The American Stroke Association (ASA), along with the American Heart Association (AHA), released their guidelines for the management of spontaneous intracerebral haemorrhage in 2015. There are several additional recommendations to the previous guidelines; these include the recommendation to control hypertension immediately from onset to prevent recurrent haemorrhage.

The ASA/AHA also published their updated guidelines on endovascular stroke therapy in 2015. To to show how important this treatment has become, the debate now is whether to use thrombectomy alone, or after thrombolysis. And the winner is…to use thrombectomy after thrombolysis. The eligibility checklist for endovascular therapy with a stent retriever is thankfully quite short.

Concussion and traumatic brain injury (TBI)

Concussion is a very topical issue, what with Will Smith as Bennett Omalu in the recent movie aptly titled… Concussion. I have previously posted on the effect of celebrities on neurology, but this here is the serious stuff.  Unlike most guidelines, these clinical practice guidelines for concussion/mild traumatic brain injury and persistent symptoms is not open access. Published in Brain Injury, I could only peruse the abstract, and this mentions 93 recommendations! Tempting however is it’s breadth, addressing everything from post-traumatic headache to sleep disturbance; from vestibular to visual dysfunction.

Friedreich's ataxia (FA)

OK, I confess these guideline are from 2014, a bit dated. But how often does one think ‘guidelines’ in the context of Friedreich’s ataxia. Furthermore, this Consensus clinical management guidelines for Friedreich ataxia is open access! Published in Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases, they are the product of 39 experts, and consist of 146 recommendations! They cover everything from sleep, spasticity, and scoliosis to diabetes, dysphagia, and dysarthria. I bet you don’t enquire about restless legs syndrome (RLS) in your patients with FA!

Motor neurone disease (MND)

And hot off the press are the NICE guidelines on motor neurone disease (MND). One thing to mention is its sheer volume- 319 pages long, and containing 123 recommendations! The guidelines targets every aspect of MND care, and it’s futile trying to master it all. Each specialist can really only pick and choose which aspect is relevant to them. There is a lot of balancing of clinical and economic benefits, and this is reflected by questions such as “what are the most clinically- and cost-effective methods of maintaining nutrition…?” The guidelines address several long-standing issues such as the clinically appropriate timing for placing PEG tubes. Whether they add anything really new is however debatable.

 

Do you have a recent guideline or update to share? Please leave a comment.