Scientists at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh showed in animal models that levels of glutathione, which protects brain cells from death when deprived of oxygen, drop by as much as 80 per cent in males after brain injury. When glutathione levels drop, brain cells die much more quickly.
The findings could expand the use of N-acetylcysteine, also known as NAC. Because it enhances the production of the enzyme glutathione, NAC is thought to both stave off disease and play an important role in boosting the immune system. It is already widely administered to protect the liver from paracetamol overdoses, which cause glutathione levels to drop, but it is also available in supplement form in Europe, recommended for preventing and treating a wide variety of ailments that may respond to its antioxidant properties.
Lead investigator Dr Robert Clark said: "Now that we've identified low glutathione levels in males with brain injuries, we can begin looking at NAC as a live-saving treatment for those injuries."
He added that NAC potentially could be an effective treatment for any injury in a male in which the brain is deprived of oxygen, including cardiac arrest, drowning accidents and severe trauma.
The team also reported that females in the same study responded differently to brain injury : glutathione levels remained constant demonstrating that boys with brain injuries may require different life-saving treatments than girls.
"There is a built-in difference at the brain cell level between males and females. Injured brain cells may eventually die, but they take different pathways to get there in males and females. This means that we may need to develop or use gender-specific therapies for brain injury from any cause," said Dr Clark.
The same team are planning further studies to evaluate the effectiveness of NAC in reducing brain damage after an injury.
Results of the study are being presented at the annual Pediatric Academic Societies meeting this week in San Francisco.