Researchers at the University of Utah Health and University of Washington found that paclitaxel, a cancer drug approved by the US body the FDA, offers protection to mice after experiencing mild traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Paclitaxel is a chemotherapy drug used to treat several types of cancer and works by stabilising microtubules; the microscopic support beams that give cells shape and offer a mechanism for molecules to move through the cell’s cytoplasm.

Researchers theorised that the drug could also stabilise the support framework inside neurons damaged by head impacts.

They examined the effect of paclitaxel using a mouse model and found that it prevented memory loss in the mice that experienced a mild TBI. They also imaged the mouse brains and found reduced brain abnormalities in the injured mice that had received paclitaxel.

“I believe this work is the tip of the iceberg that could transform how we treat traumatic brain injuries,” said Donna Cross, research associate professor in radiology and imaging sciences at the University of of Utah Health and first author on the study.

“This drug shows promise for reducing brain injuries and may also help fortify the brain against the effects of future head injuries.

“Concussive forces to the head can affect all of the cells in your brain. We believe paclitaxel stabilises many different cell types, to help circumvent the downstream cascade of events following a brain injury.” 

David Cook, of the department of medicine at the University of Washington and a collaborating researcher for the study, added: “One of the things that make these finding interesting is that it helps emphasize the importance of how TBI can disrupt the delicate balance that exists between microtubule stability and instability in the brain.”

The authors caution that it remains to be seen whether the treatment works the same in people. Further, it is not known how long following an injury the drug can be given and still be effective. 

The results of the study are available in the Journal Alzheimer’s Disease.