Scientists in the UK hope to develop a drug that imitates the brain’s ability to protect itself from damage caused by a stroke after explaining why certain neurons can withstand being starved from oxygen for the first time in history.

Writing in the journal Nature Medicine, a group of researchers at the University of Oxford said they found that production of a specific protein called hamartin allowed brain cells in rats to switch to survival mode.

The team showed that stimulating production of hamartin offered greater protection for the neurons.

University of Oxford Medical Science division head and research leader Professor Alastair Buchan said; "This is causally related to cell survival. If we block hamartin, the neurons die when blood flow is stopped. If we put hamartin back, the cells survive once more."

It has been known for 85 years that neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory, are able to survive when a clot blocks the blood supply to the brain, while other cells in the same area die.

However, what protected that one set of cells from damage had remained a mystery until now.

Buchan hopes these findings will open up the possibility of developing drugs that mimic hamartin’s effect.

"There is a great deal of work ahead if this is to be translated into the clinic, but we now have a neuroprotective strategy for the first time. Our next steps will be to see if we can find small molecule drug candidates that mimic what hamartin does and keep brain cells alive," Buchan said.

"While we are focussing on stroke, neuroprotective drugs may also be of interest in other conditions that see early death of brain cells including Alzheimer’s and motor neurone disease."

Image: Some neurons in the part of the brain that controls memory are able to survive a stroke. Photo: Courtesy of