Conference Coverage

Brain injury in sickle cell merits more attention



– The risk of brain damage from sickle cell disease (SCD) merits more attention, even with progress made in recent decades to prevent strokes, according to Lori Jordan, MD, PhD, of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.

Dr. Lori Jordan, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.

Dr. Lori Jordan

“Whether we can see it or not, the same injury we’ve been talking about in the kidney and the liver and other places is occurring in the brain” with sickle cell disease, Dr. Jordan said at Sickle Cell in Focus, a conference held by the National Institutes of Health.

The concern about long-term brain injury reflects major shifts in SCD treatment. Improved medical care has transformed SCD from a disease that often resulted in an early death to more of a chronic condition, Dr. Jordan said, citing research that shows a survival rate of roughly 99% to age 18 years (Br J Haematol. 2016 Jun;173[6]:927-37).

One of the major success stories in SCD treatment also has been using primary prevention steps to cut the risk of overt stroke at least 10-fold, Dr. Jordan said. Primary prevention includes annual scans with transcranial Doppler ultrasound to identify children with SCD at high risk of stroke.

“What’s not changing is that there is silent injury that accumulates” and can cause lifelong harm, she said. “We want to protect our patients long term so that they can have a successful adult life, not just a successful childhood.”

Research done by one of Dr. Jordan’s colleagues at Vanderbilt, Michael R. DeBaun, MD, showed that regular blood-transfusion therapy significantly reduced the incidence of the recurrence of brain infarct in children with sickle cell anemia. (N Engl J Med. 2014 Aug 21;371[8]:699-710).

But the lessons from the work of Dr. DeBaun and his colleagues with their Silent Cerebral Infarct Multi-Center Clinical (SIT) Trial have not yet been fully adopted, Dr. Jordan said. That’s partly due to the inconvenience and cost of routinely administered blood transfusions to prevent silent cerebral infarcts, which, when used long term, cause side effects, she said.

Dr. Jordan said there’s growing interest in identifying patients at high risk for stroke and moving them toward stem cell transplant, though studies are ongoing. She urged greater attention to the high lifetime costs of strokes and other cerebrovascular complications, particularly in children and young adults.

While some of the brain infarcts are small and don’t result in focal weakness of the body, these “silent infarcts” do produce cognitive effects that reduce function, school performance, employment, and quality of life, she said.

“The injury to the brain is present, whether we can see it or not,” Dr. Jordan said. “In these precious patients, slow cognitive decline isn’t acceptable, frankly.”

Dr. Jordan reported having received funding from the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health for stroke prevention studies in SCD.

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