High-pressure oxygen treatment can help old brain injuries, Israeli researchers find

The success has raised great hopes among the researchers; may be able to treat early stages of dementia, Alzheimer's.

Hyperbaric oxygen chamber 370 (photo credit: Assaf Harofeh Medical Center)
Hyperbaric oxygen chamber 370
(photo credit: Assaf Harofeh Medical Center)
Hyperbaric oxygen treatment can improve chronic brain injury even 20 years after the initial damage, according to breakthrough Israeli research just published in the Public Library of Science’s journal PLOS One.
The research was conducted by researchers at Tel Aviv University and Assaf Harofeh Medical Center in Tzrifin.
Hyperbaric oxygen – high levels of oxygen in high-pressure chambers – has long been used to treat divers suffering from “the bends” in which they came up too fast to the surface and people with carbon monoxide poisoning from broken heating devices.
Such patients have difficult remembering, concentrating and processing information.
Chronic brain disability may be caused by trauma to the head, as in road accidents or falls, and by strokes and various diseases, and show up in the form of physical, psychological and cognitive problems, explains Prof. Eshel Ben-Jacob of TAU’s School of Physics and Astronomy and the Sagol School for Brain Sciences.
They are usually treated by physical rehabilitation, but the results were limited.
But the researchers have found that if the patient is exposed to an environment rich in high-pressure oxygen, their condition can improve significantly, even years after the injury occurred.
According to the university, the state of Texas is considering funding the innovative treatment for residents who suffered head injuries as well as US soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ben-Jacob explained that hyperbaric oxygen was not considered seriously until now, because it was believed that neural networks in the brain can change and renew themselves only in children or during a small “window of opportunity” after the injury.
Sixty patients with various degrees of injury participated; their conditions had stopped improving some time ago, and they were considered chronically disabled.
Advanced imaging techniques were used at Tzrifin’s hyperbaric chamber to assess their brain function before and after treatment.
“We focused on people who were hurt a year to six years ago, and most of them improved in their ability to remember, concentrate, identify where they were, read and process information,” said Dr. Shai Efrati, a TAU Sackler School of Medicine researcher and director of the hyperbaric chamber in Tzrifin. “The results in the field were very clear and amazed us as doctors who treat patients and researchers,” he added.
Oxygen under pressure reaches the brain tissues more easily, so nerve cells that had remained alive but lacked the energy to wake up and again function are coaxed into functioning.
The healthy brain gets one-fifth of the oxygen we breathe, but it isn’t enough to help places that were damaged or dormant; it is enough only for healthy brain regions.
With high-pressure oxygen, the damaged brain can build blood vessels, renew connections between nerve cells and wake up dormant cells. The oxygen in the hyperbaric chamber is at 10 times the pressure as that we breathe.
Thus, said Efrati, the brain has the energy to repair damage.
The success has raised great hopes among the researchers, said Ben-Jacob, who said that many brain disorders are connected to “energy management” by the brain. Such problems can occur in the elderly, with slower blood flow to the brain and inside it. So the treatment may be able to help in early stages of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, he said. “And who knows? Maybe in the future we’ll be able to give anti-aging treatment that will strengthen the functioning of the brain and preserve it for the rest of one’s life.”