Scientists from Melbourne's Howard Florey Institute have found special proteins that protect the brain after it has been damaged by a lack of oxygen, which occurs in conditions such as stroke, perinatal asphyxia, near-drowning and traumatic brain injury.
Dr Nicole Jones and her team discovered that during oxygen deprivation, or 'hypoxia', these proteins (HIF1á and PHD2) increase.
These proteins regulate processes like the production of red blood cells and new blood vessels, and the flow of glucose to the brain. Therefore they are involved in preventing further brain damage and repairing damage caused by the initial injury.
This discovery takes the Howard Florey Institute's scientists closer to developing preventative and regenerative treatments for brain damage caused by hypoxia.
Dr Jones said her discovery resulted from looking at how the body tries to protect itself and how the brain reacts when it experiences mild, non-damaging hypoxia.
"I found that mild, non-damaging hypoxia actually protected the brain against a subsequent injury by activating certain proteins," Dr Jones said.
"Mild hypoxia appears to pre-condition neural tissues against a mass 'suicide' of healthy neurons after a stroke or other brain trauma.
"In an experiment in rats, mild hypoxia followed by a major stroke resulted in less brain damage than if the rat experienced just a major stroke - all because these protective proteins were increased by the first non-damaging exposure to hypoxia.
"I am now looking at developing both preventative and regenerative treatments that mimic these proteins' protective and repairing effects," she said.
Dr Jones is now testing drug candidates, and would like to develop new drugs that activate these protective proteins in the brain.
While further research is required, Dr Jones and her team are hopeful that their investigations will lead to effective treatments that will help people experiencing hypoxia, and also to improve recovery from hypoxic induced brain damage.
Dr Jones' research has been recently published in the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism and Neuroscience Letters.
The Howard Florey Institute is Australia's leading brain research centre. Its scientists undertake clinical and applied research that can be developed into treatments to combat brain disorders, and new medical practices. Their discoveries will improve the lives of those directly, and indirectly, affected by brain and mind disorders in Australia, and around the world. The Florey's research areas cover a variety of brain and mind disorders including Parkinson's disease, stroke, motor neuron disease, addiction, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, autism and dementia.
Dr Jones is available for interviews on Thursday 24 August from 9am - 12 midday and then again from 2:30pm to 5pm.