Injuries from a blow to the head are a two-stage affair, with the primary injury caused by the initial impact being followed by a secondary injury that develops in the subsequent hours and days. We have seen the development of devices like the Jolt Sensor that are designed to detect the severity of the initial impact, but there is currently no drug treatment for the secondary injury, which is largely responsible for a patient sustaining mental and physical disabilities. Now scientists at Imperial College London have found that xenon gas shows promise as such a treatment.

Previous studies at Imperial College London showed xenon, a chemically inert gas, has the ability to protect brain cells from mechanical injury in the lab. The researchers have now shown for the first time that the protective effects also carry through to live animals.

The team started by anesthetizing mice before applying a controlled mechanical force to the brain. They then treated some of the mice with different concentrations of xenon at different times after the injury. In tests to assess their neurological deficits, such as movement and balance problems, the mice treated with xenon performed much better in the days and month after the injury than those that weren't. Even if treatment was delayed for up to three hours after the injury, the mice treated with xenon had less brain damage.

"This study shows that xenon can prevent brain damage and disability in mice, and crucially it’s effective when given up to at least three hours after the injury," said Dr Robert Dickinson from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London. "It’s feasible that someone who hits their head in an accident could be treated in the hospital or in an ambulance in this time frame."

Researchers from Imperial College London are already involved in a clinical trial studying the potential of xenon as a treatment for babies who have been deprived of oxygen during birth. Dr Dickinson believes the results of the head injury study involving mice are enough to support clinical trials of the gas as a treatment for head injury in humans.

The team's study is published in the journal Critical Care Medicine.