Researchers have discovered a protein that might prevent neurons from dying after traumatic brain injuries such as those caused by severe car accidents. Seong-Seng Tan of the Howard Florey Institute in Australia and his colleagues tested the activity of 18,000 genes in surviving neurons (right) that surrounded an injury site in the brains of mice. All but one gene—responsible for generating the protein N4WBP5—drastically reduced their protein production during the 24 hours after injury. When Tan manipulated stressed brain cells into producing more N4WBP5 than usual, a dramatically higher number of cells survived.
The Australian team is currently trying to delineate the precise mechanisms that underlie the N4WBP5 action. Knowing how the protein may prevent cell death could lead to drugs that can simulate its function, says Andrew Ottens, an outside expert and professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of Florida. He cautions, however, that further studies are needed, including tests that determine whether N4WBP5 performs its function for more than 24 hours, because in many cases “neurons continue to die for days after traumatic injury.”