Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a significant cause of death and disability in both the civilian and the military populations. The primary impact causes initial tissue damage, which initiates biochemical cascades, known as secondary injury, that expand the damage. Free radicals are implicated as major contributors to the secondary injury. Our review of recent rodent and human research reveals the prominent role of the free radicals superoxide anion, nitric oxide, and peroxynitrite in secondary brain injury. Much of our current knowledge is based on rodent studies, and the authors identified a gap in the translation of findings from rodent to human TBI. Rodent models are an effective method for elucidating specific mechanisms of free radical-induced injury at the cellular level in a well-controlled environment. However, human TBI does not occur in a vacuum, and variables controlled in the laboratory may affect the injury progression. Additionally, multiple experimental TBI models are accepted in rodent research, and no one model fully reproduces the heterogeneous injury seen in humans. Free radical levels are measured indirectly in human studies based on assumptions from the findings from rodent studies that use direct free radical measurements. Further study in humans should be directed toward large samples to validate the findings in rodent studies. Data obtained from these studies may lead to more targeted treatment to interrupt the secondary injury cascades.
Keywords: free radicals; nitric oxide; peroxynitrite; secondary injury; superoxide; traumatic brain injury.