Acute neuropathological conditions, including brain and spinal cord trauma, are leading causes of death and disabilities worldwide, especially in children and young adults. The causes of brain and spinal cord injuries include automobile accidents, accidents during recreational activities, falls and violent attacks. In the United States of America alone, around 1.7 million people each year seek medical care for some kind of head injury. About fifty-two thousand of these people will die, while the same number will present with permanent functional disability. Considering the high worldwide prevalence of these acute pathological conditions, research on the mechanisms underlying central nervous system damage is of extreme importance. Nowadays, a number of experimental models of acute neural disorders have been developed and the mechanisms of tissue loss have been investigated. These mechanisms include both primary and secondary pathological events contributing to tissue damage and functional impairment.
The main secondary pathological mechanisms encompass excitotoxicity, ionic imbalances, inflammatory response, oxidative stress and apoptosis. The proper elucidation of how neural tissue is lost following brain and spinal cord trauma is fundamental to developing effective therapies to human diseases. The present review evaluates the main mechanisms of secondary tissue damage following traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries.