A traumatic brain injury can cause seizures and lead to the development of epilepsy. Now a team of researchers with the University of California, Berkeley, has found that a simple protein in the blood is to blame.
In 2002, Daniela Kaufer and Alon Friedman studied what happened when the brain’s protective sheath, the blood-brain barrier, is compromised by an injury—for instance, during contact sports or a car accident.
They found that seizures were more likely to develop if the brain had been exposed to blood that had circulated through the body.
The culprit is albumin, the most abundant protein in the blood.Their findings were published in the journal Glia.
“We were surprised, even a little disappointed, that it was such a common component of the blood—nothing exotic at all—that led to epilepsy,” Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology, told UC Berkeley.
Albumin is made in the liver and transports several other proteins through the body. While it's essential to healthy blood, it can also be dangerous if it crosses the blood-brain barrier.
When damaged during a traumatic brain injury, the blood-brain barrier can allow extra albumin into the brain. This speeds up signaling between neurons. Seizures can occur when neurons become overexcited.
Developing an Emergency Therapy for Brain Injuries
Now that Kaufer, Friedman, and their team know the cause of seizures after brain injuries, they’re working on an emergency therapy to help preserve precious gray matter.
Albumin interacts with a cell protein, TGF-beta receptor, and can damage the brain by creating an overabundance of signals firing through the brain.
Kaufer and Friedman say a prescription drug that treats high blood pressure blocks TGF-beta receptors from signaling.
With support from UC Berkeley’s Bakar Fellows Program, the team is working to see if the blood pressure drug can prevent victims of brain trauma from developing epilepsy.
A common magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan can assess the condition of the blood-brain barrier after a brain injury, so emergency room doctors may soon be able to administer drugs that will drastically reduce a person’s risk of epilepsy.
“Right now, if someone comes to the emergency room with traumatic brain injury, they have a 10 to 50 percent chance of developing epilepsy. But you don’t know which ones, nor do you have a way of preventing it. And epilepsy from brain injuries is the type most unresponsive to drugs,” Kaufer said. “I’m very hopeful that our research can spare these patients the added trauma of epilepsy.”