Now, there's hope for a possible breakthrough.
In her lab at San Francisco's Gladstone Institutes, researcher Jeanne Paz, Ph.D., studies the circuits that relay messages in the brain, trying to understand how they change after a traumatic brain injury, also known as TBI.
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Using animals models, her team began exploring those signals. They ultimately identified a disruption in a key area of the brain, possibly linked to a host of long-term symptoms from sleeplessness to seizures. And along with it, a possible suspect.
"What we found is that after the traumatic brain injuries, there is an up-regulation in this molecule called C1q, and especially in a deep brain area called the Thalamus. And when we blocked this molecule we were able to prevent the chronic neuronal loss, and the chronic inflammation and the sleep disruption and the development of epileptic spikes," Paz explains.
In other words, major symptoms of TBI.
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The blocker they used was an antibody, being developed by South San Francisco-based Annexon Biosciences. Ted Yednock, Ph.D., is chief innovation officer.
"In traumatic brain injury, there aren't really any available therapies, especially any that prevent the neurodegenerative process from happening. So what's really interesting about Dr. Paz's study, is that even 24 hours after the injury, she found that she could treat, use our treatment to block this process," says Yednock.
The company is already conducting clinical trials of the inhibitor for treating ALS and other conditions and could potentially expand to TBI in the future if the results are encouraging. And with causes ranging from car crashes to simple falls, some 69 million people around the world are believed to suffer from traumatic brain injury every year.
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Stephanie Holden, Ph.D., who worked on the Gladstone team, believes a post-injury treatment could be life-changing.
"It's really meaningful to me personally, having worked with, volunteered with people who had survived brain injuries in the past, understanding the struggles that they go through in their day-to-day life, and the hope that there might be a potential treatment for the symptoms that they experienced would be really, really powerful," Holden says.
Researchers say the antibody being tested by Annexon Biosciences, has already been shown to be safe in humans.