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April 2006 Issue
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Adelaide leads the way to prevent brain swelling


The University of Adelaide's medical researchers are leading the world in developing drugs to prevent brain swelling.

Brain swelling - or cerebral oedema - happens when the brain is either injured or infected and its water content increases by up to 5%, often leading to death.

Apart from traumatic brain injury, swelling of the brain is associated with strokes and meningitis, and any condition that causes brain inflammation.

According to Professor Robert Vink, Head of Pathology at the University of Adelaide, the treatment of brain swelling has not changed in 40 years.

"The research we are conducting is centred on the role of neuropeptides (a group of chemical transmitters that communicate between brain cells and other cells) in causing swelling of the brain," Professor Vink said.

"We know that inflammation occurs in the brain but we need to understand what role the nervous system plays in this.

"There is currently no pharmacological treatment for brain swelling and this is the first attempt in the world to understand specifically how neuropeptides cause cerebral oedema after brain injury and whether we can develop a drug to prevent that."

The brain is normally made up of 78% water. When inflammation occurs, this can increase to 83%, leading to restricted blood blow and an increase in intra-cranial pressures, followed by herniations where the brain tissue shifts across to other areas within the skull.

"This is when oxygen levels can drop in critical areas of the brain, usually leading to death."

Professor Vink is the Neurosurgical Research Foundation Chair of Neurosurgical Research. Four of his students from the University's Centre for Neurological Diseases will present short summaries of their higher degree work on neuropeptides at a lecture on April 11 at the Medical School.

Islam Hassan, a Medical Science Masters student, and PhD students Renee Turner, James Donkin and Emma Thornton will present their research findings on neuropeptides and their role in cerebral oedema and brain cell death.

"We have shown that a specific neuropeptide, known as substance P, is a major player in neurogenic inflammation," Professor Vink said.

"Islam will present data which shows that substance P is released after traumatic brain injury or stroke.

"Renee's work confirms that drugs can be administered to reduce, or even stop, brain swelling.

"James will show that by giving drugs up to 12 hours after traumatic brain injury, profound improvements in neurological outcome can result with a marked reduction in brain swelling.

"Emma is working on the theory that substance P is associated with the degeneration of brain cells, or neurones. Her studies show that in pre-clinical Parkinson's Disease, where sufferers exhibit no outward signs of the disease, substance P is actually increased. This suggests it is associated with the very early onset of Parkinson's," Professor Vink said.

Story by Candy Gibson

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Clockwise from back left: James Donkin, Islam Hassan, Emma Thornton and Renee Turner
Photo courtesy of Neurological Research Foundation

Clockwise from back left: James Donkin, Islam Hassan, Emma Thornton and Renee Turner
Photo courtesy of Neurological Research Foundation

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