How seaweed could help heal traumatic brain injuries

An anti-inflammatory sugar in seaweed was used to create a hydrogel scaffold that may help repair damage from traumatic brain injuries.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) causes long-term irreversible damage largely because inflammation prevents the regrowth of healthy brain tissue. So Australian scientists went on the hunt for a natural compound that could halt that inflammation—and they found it in something that’s plentiful in their country: seaweed.

Scientists at Australian National University and RMIT Australia University worked with Tasmania-based biotech company Marinova to develop a compound derived from a sugar molecule in seaweed. They combined the substance with short peptides and created a brain scaffold, according to a press release. The scaffold closely resembles healthy brain tissue.

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In the lab, they injected the mixture into a damaged brain. The scaffold prevented scarring and improved healing. And it seemed to have a positive effect on brain cells located far from the original injury site. They published their findings in two papers, in the journals Nature Scientific Reports and ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering.

“This potentially allows an entirely natural, biomaterial approach to treat the damage caused by traumatic brain injury and stroke by allowing the brain to repair itself,” said Richard Williams, a senior lecturer at RMIT, in the release.

Tamping down inflammation after TBI is a major focus of researchers around the world. Last year, scientists at Hebrew University in Israel announced they were testing a molecule that targets the inflammatory protein thioredoxin (Trx1) in mild brain injury. And the University of Miami partnered with Tetra Discovery to test an experimental drug that may enhance memory formation in neurons following brain injury.

The Australian scientists believe that their seaweed-based hydrogel changes how the brain reacts to injury, allowing it to regenerate when it might not have otherwise. They plan to explore whether the material can be applied to repairing bones, muscles and nerves.

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