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Mitochondria key to treating brain injuries

December 27, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
It's the number-one cause of death and disability in children, killing more kids than cancer or any other disease: Every year, 475,000 children under age 14 suffer traumatic brain injuries (TBI). Now new discoveries are giving kids a better shot at survival.

A horrific accident changed Joe Detwiler's life in an instant. The impact caused severe brain injury.

"He just looked so still and so unresponsive," said Mike Detwiler, Joe's father. "You want to just hug him and tell him you love him."

Joe spent two months in a medically induced coma and two more in the hospital relearning everything.

Dr. Jose Pineda hopes to help kids like Joe survive traumatic brain injuries and improve their recovery. He's pioneering research in kids, looking at trauma to the mitochondria, the "power plant" that energizes cells in the brain.

"We confirmed what we had suspected and that is that, indeed, the mitochondria of children with brain injuries is failing, and it's failing for many, many weeks," said Pineda.

Now they're exploring a way to stimulate the mitochondria in kids with TBI.

"We would administer a medication that will travel to the brain, to the injured brain, go directly to the mitochondria and help it heal," said Pineda.

Clinical trials are going on right now to test that kind of medication in adults. Pineda says they're promising.

In an unrelated study, a similar therapeutic approach in adults with TBI improved function at 30 days after the injury and reduced mortality by more than 60 percent.

As for Joe, he's made an amazing recovery and believes his doctors made all the difference.

"I can't even put it into words how thankful I am," said Joe.