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Could Fruit Flies Hold Secrets to TBI?

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) affects millions of Americans every year. Even after years of study, researchers know very little about the neuroscience behind treating the condition. Now one scientist says fruit flies could hold the answer.

Every year, 1.7 million Americans suffer a traumatic brain injury. Motor vehicle accidents cause 17.3% of those injuries – and the most of all types of TBI-related deaths. Other traumatic brain injuries are cause by falls, assaults, and sports-related injuries.

Researchers have been paying special attention to traumatic brain injury recently. Ever since Dr. Bennet Omalu’s findings on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) hit the big screen, TBI has been in the public eye.

But despite all the hype, the neurological science behind TBI has remained a mystery. Better knowledge of the genes and cellular pathways in the brain may be able to reduce the harmful effects of TBI. But that’s difficult because of how those injuries develop.

After a traumatic brain injury, some people will experience symptoms right away, including mood swings, headaches, and sleep problems. Others may not even know they have had a TBI for weeks or months after the accident. In serious TBI cases, secondary injuries from swelling, pressure, and lack of blood to some parts of the brain, can develop over years.

Now Kim Finley, an associate professor at the San Diego State University Donald P. Shiley BioScience Center, and her team of scientists have found promising signs in an unlikely place: fruit flies. Finley explains:

“Fruit flies actually have a very complex nervous system. . . . They are also an incredible model system that has been used for over 100 years for genetic studies, and more recently to understand the genes that maintain a healthy brain.”

Fruit flies make ideal candidates for TBI testing because of their short life spans.

“Traits that might take 40 years to develop in people can occur in flies within two weeks.”

Finley and her team used an automated system, traumatizing thousands of fruit flies and then watched what developed. Co-lead author, Eric Ratliff, an adjunct assistant professor at SDSU, explained:

“Fruit flies come out of this mild trauma and appear perfectly normal. . . . However, the flies quickly begin to show signs of decline, similar to problems found in people who have been exposed to head injuries.”

The injured fruit flies showed damage to neurons in their brains and an accumulation of the protein that indicates CTE, called hyper-phosphorylated Tau.

The similarities between the way fruit flies and human brains react to TBI on a neurological level makes them a candidate for testing. The tiny bugs can help scientists understand the science behind head injuries, which could lead to breakthroughs in concussion treatment in the future, restoring millions of lives.

David Christensen is a brain injury expert at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He represents the victims of TBI auto accidents to get their treatments covered. If you have suffered a traumatic brain injury, contact Christensen Law for a free consultation.