Avoid radiation brain damage with this simple treatment

Ready for the most counter-intuitive piece of medical research you'll hear about today? University of Oklahoma Neuroscientist Junie Warrington and colleagues have discovered that controlled oxygen starvation can reverse radiation induced brain damage in mice. Does this mean that you can cross the atomic wasteland of your bombed-out city safely just by holding your breath?

Not quite - it's a bit more complicated than that.

When someone comes down with a brain tumor, they're often treated with whole brain radiation therapy (WBRT). The problem with this is that 40%-50% of survivors have to deal with cognitive impairment afterwards. The radiation decreases blood vessel density in important parts of the brain, essentially starving it of nutrients. You save the brain, but render it less effective.

What Warrington and her team have discovered is that this brain damage can be reversed in mice - just by depriving them of oxygen. One month after the radiation treatment, the mice were subjected to either normal oxygen levels, or 11% oxygen (hypoxia) for 28 days. By cutting the oxygen levels to half normal for almost a month, the researchers write, the treatment "completely reversed WBRT-induced impairments in learning." And blood vessel density increased, persisting for at least 2 months following hypoxia treatment.

It's not entirely clear why why this treatment works. The researchers believe that the WBRT may interfere with the body's ability to form new blood vessels, which the hypoxia may do something remedy. I wouldn't count on this hitting hospitals (or nuclear wastelands) until a lot more research has been done, but it's an intriguing vein of research.