Traumatic brain injury is a potentially devastating condition that can that can often lead to permanent disability. While traumatic brain injury can be caused by a stroke, brain bleed, or head trauma, the resulting cascade of activity is similar regardless of the initial cause of the injury. Traumatic brain injury sets off a complex set of changes that causes brain cells to become dysfunctional and die. Consequently, people who suffer traumatic brain injury suffer cognitive, behavioral, and movement disorders depending on the area of the brain that is affected. Despite advances in neurocritical care, there are no effective treatments to reverse the cascade of traumatic brain injury.
Stem cells offer great promise in the treatment of traumatic brain injury. They work to change the harsh, destructive environment caused by this condition into one that can promote nerve cell protection and regeneration. To investigate stem cells as a potential defense against or treatment for traumatic brain injury, researchers have conducted several small clinical studies. Wang and colleagues performed a series of four stem cell transplantations over 5 to 7 days in patients that had suffered recent traumatic brain injury. No adverse effects were observed six months after treatment; however, patients did have a significant improvement in neurological function and a greater ability to care for themselves compared to brain-injured patients who did not receive stem cells. Chen and co-authors similarly showed that stem cells improved neurological function in patients who had suffered a recent stroke. As with Wang’s group, there were no observed side effects from treatment. Impressively, Chen’s group followed patients for up to 20 years after treatment and found no adverse events related to the stem cell treatment over that time.
As research continues, these initial results are particularly exciting because they are administered after—not before—brain injury. Based on these studies, stem cell treatment can be viewed as an intervention that can potentially be used to improve the outcome of traumatic brain injury it has occurred.