Scott Armstrong, winner of the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2013, tells us about his efforts to use xenon to combat the brain damage caused by head injuries.
Close your eyes and picture a high-speed car crash. An elderly relative taking a tumble down the stairs. Muhammad Ali flooring Sonny Liston, or just another late night punch-up on the streets of Soho. The common feature here is a traumatic injury to the head, resulting ultimately in damage to the brain. Such incidents are collected together under the medical definition of ‘traumatic brain injury’ – a silent epidemic responsible for close to a million visits to A&E each year, and the leading cause of death and disability in under 45’s in the developed world. An epidemic which represents a major unmet clinical need, given that there are currently no drugs available to arrest the injury processes particular to this type of brain damage.
The fascinating thing about the sort of brain damage observed in a traumatic injury is that the damage caused by the initial, physical blow to the head comprises a relatively small proportion of the total damage the brain will eventually suffer. What actually happens is that in the minutes, hours, and even days following that blow, damage spreads across and into the brain, as a rot spreads through an apple. It is this damage that occurs after the physical insult that is responsible for the major burden of injury and the majority of deaths associated with brain trauma – reflected in the fact that a large percentage of trauma deaths occur weeks after the event. Read more