Australian researchers say the brain uses a hitherto unknown mechanism to repair nerve damage.
Roger Chung of Menzies Research Institute, an affiliate of the University of Tasmania, has revealed that his team has found that brain cells known as astrocytes overproduce a protective protein called metallothionein (MT) during injury, and secrete it to surrounding nerves.
Talking about the functions of the MT protein, he said that it prevents free radicals and metal ions from damaging a cell.
Chung said that though the ability of astrocytes to produce MT had been known for decades, scientists generally thought that the protein stayed within astrocytes to protect them while they helped repair damaged areas.
However, he and his colleagues have now discovered that astrocytes deliver MT to nearby neurons also.
The researchers revealed that with the help of a fluorescent MT protein, they were able to see that MT made in astrocytes could be transported outside the cell, and then subsequently taken up by nearby nerves.
They said that the level of MT uptake correlated with how well the nerves repaired damage.
Chung and his colleagues admit that they still do not yet know exactly what physiological role MT plays in promoting better repair.
They, however, believe that the unexpected role of this protein they have uncovered may open up new avenues in treating brain injuries in the future.
A research article describing the study appears in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.