Clearing the fog: Interdisciplinary effort targets traumatic brain injuries

// Mechanical Engineering

Tags: 2019, Faculty, News

Image of brain concussion

UW-Madison is leading an effort that aims to drive scientific advances that will enable better detection, treatment and prevention of traumatic brain injuries. iStock image.

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Increasingly, concussions prematurely end the careers of athletes young and old, and for many of those individuals, they inflict life-changing short- and long-term damage. Yet surprisingly, there’s much researchers still don’t know about how concussions actually develop in the brain.

There’s no objective clinical test for diagnosing concussions, a mild type of traumatic brain injury, with certainty. In fact, many concussions don’t produce noticeable symptoms and can easily go undetected, potentially putting people at increased risk for brain damage in the future.

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers aim to drive scientific advances they hope will better help detect, treat and, perhaps most importantly, prevent, traumatic brain injuries.

Photo of Christian Franck
Christian Franck

Their effort, a U.S. Office of Naval Research-sponsored interdisciplinary hub, dubbed PANTHER, brings together researchers across academia, industry and the federal government to address this pressing societal issue.

Mechanical engineer Christian Franck, who directs PANTHER, says an interdisciplinary approach is crucial for making progress in this area, given the highly complex nature of the brain—healthy or injured.

“There are thousands of published journal articles related to traumatic brain injuries, but researchers are mostly doing studies in isolation,” says Franck, who also is an affiliate of the Grainger Institute for Engineering at UW-Madison. “There’s not enough interdisciplinary communication, and that has really hindered our progress in this field.”

Franck wants PANTHER to serve as a one-stop shop that brings together a diverse group of people who frequently exchange information and ideas across disciplines. These ongoing conversations could influence research directions and accelerate novel solutions for addressing traumatic brain injuries. He is seeking to add more partners and collaborators from across UW-Madison and beyond.

Franck says PANTHER is unique among such efforts because of its scope, which includes basic and applied science, as well as technology transfer and product development. “This structure will allow us to move basic science breakthroughs forward into the consumer space and to spin off companies relatively quickly, delivering new products and approaches that will help people,” he says.

Discoveries that emerge from PANTHER could enable a number of innovative products—for example, helmets that are much more effective at preventing concussions. Today’s helmets are designed to prevent skull fractures, but they fall short in protecting the brain from concussions, Franck says. “That’s not for lack of trying by the helmet manufacturers,” he says. “One challenge for designing a better helmet is that we don’t yet know what key parameters brain cells respond to during an impact.”

It’s a challenge that Franck addresses in his research, which involves studying how physical forces from an impact cause trauma in the brain and lead to cell loss. His approach is iterative and focused on continuous improvement; as he identifies specific parameters that affect brain cells, he and his collaborators will work with industry partner Team Wendy, which specializes in helmets, to design the next generation of helmets and helmet materials that target each parameter.

Beyond innovative products, the program also seeks to raise public awareness of the potential long-term health consequences of traumatic brain injuries. PANTHER researchers plan to make their research findings publicly available and serve as a trusted source of science-based information on traumatic brain injuries.

“This program is meant to provide objective data, not subjective opinions,” Franck says. “For example, for parents who may have questions about their children participating in youth sports, we want to share what we currently know and don’t know about concussion risks without bias. We want to empower people to make their own decisions.”

With its robust research infrastructure and excellence in basic, applied and medical sciences, UW-Madison is well positioned to lead this effort, which is being supported by a $5.5 million grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Franck hopes PANTHER serves as a catalyst for traumatic brain injury advances.

“UW-Madison has world-class expertise in a wide range of disciplines, including neuroscience, neurophysiology and biomedical engineering, as well as a top medical school, so I feel the ground is very fertile,” he says. “A lot of the components are already here and it’s a matter of capitalizing on it and growing this effort.”

In addition to Team Wendy, partners in PANTHER include researchers from Brown University, Drexel University and Sandia National Laboratories.

Author: Adam Malecek