It has been long known that some brain cells can withstand being starved of oxygen, but it is hoped that the new understanding as to why these cells survive will result in a drug which uses the same process to protect the whole brain.
During a stroke, blood clots block the blood supply and prevent the flow of oxygen and sugar to the brain cells, causing them to die quickly. However, in 1926 it was discovered that some of the cells found in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory, do not seem to do this.
Researchers now understand why this is. They have found that these particular cells produce a protein called harmatin. When these cells are prevented from producing harmatin they die just like other cells.
Professor Alastair Buchan from Oxford University, who was involved in the research, has said: “We have shown for the first time that the brain has mechanisms which it can use to protect itself and keep brain cells alive.”
Timing is very important in treating a stroke and it is hoped that this new knowledge about the cells’ production of harmatin will lead to the development of a drug which can be given when an ambulance arrives and buy some time before a patient is taken to hospital where further treatment can be given.