With $7.9M in new grants, engineers will advance detection and prevention of traumatic brain injuries

// Mechanical Engineering

iStock image of brain

University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers will use new funding from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to expand the scope of their research on concussions and other traumatic brain injuries.

Photo of Christian Franck
Christian Franck

The researchers aim to enable better solutions for detecting and preventing traumatic brain injuries, and their work has high potential for rapid translation into commercial products.

In September 2021, UW-Madison mechanical engineering professors Christian Franck, Joseph Andrews and Shiva Rudraraju received grants totaling $7.9 million to support the PANTHER program. Directed by Franck, PANTHER is an interdisciplinary research initiative that brings together scientists from academia, industry and government to study traumatic brain injury through a range of approaches.

Franck says part of the new funding will support the team’s work with industry partner Team Wendy to create a new kind of helmet liner.

Today’s helmets are designed to prevent skull fractures, but they fall short in protecting the brain from concussions, Franck says. By shedding light on fundamental aspects of traumatic brain injury—such as how forces generate strain in brain cells, and how that strain can cause a concussion—Franck and his collaborators will inform the design of equipment that will better protect the brain.

“This new funding will allow us to take our work into a very applied direction, such as building next-generation consumer products that will protect the brain from injury,” Franck says. “It’s exciting to start materializing some of these ideas that are informed from our basic science research.”

Franck says an important finding from the research is that rotational acceleration of the head is a crucial driver of brain injury. That’s why the team is working to develop a helmet liner that will mitigate head rotation during an impact.

“I’m personally really excited about this, because I would love to have this kind of helmet liner when I ride my bike,” Franck says. “My hope is to get a consumer product out to the public in the next two-to-three years.”

Image of 3D brain cell cultures
An image from 3D brain cell cultures that Christian Franck uses for his research on traumatic brain injury. Courtesy of Christian Franck.

The researchers will harness machine learning approaches to assess different materials, architectures and manufacturing techniques in order to determine the ideal makeup of the helmet liner. UW-Madison Mechanical Engineering Professor Krishnan Suresh, who joined PANTHER with this latest round of funding, will contribute his expertise in topology optimization, which involves using computational tools to rapidly accelerate product design. The team plans to build prototype helmet liners to see which innovations provide the most protection.

This funding has added several new researchers to the PANTHER program, including Andrews, an assistant professor in mechanical and electrical and computer engineering at UW-Madison. An expert in flexible electronics, Andrews is working on developing advanced head sensors that can be seamlessly incorporated into helmets to measure impact forces and head motion. The researchers will feed the sensor data into computer models that will allow them to predict the amount of strain on brain tissues.

In addition, the grants will allow the researchers to incorporate artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to explore how the anatomy of the brain influences the overall injury response.

PANTHER is funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Partners in PANTHER include researchers from Brown University, Robert Morris University, Colorado School of Mines, the University of Texas, Arlington, the University of Southern California, Iowa State University, UC Santa Barbara, Johns Hopkins University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Sandia National Laboratories. Industry partners include Team Wendy, which produces protective equipment for the military, Trek Bicycle and Milwaukee Tool. Additional collaborators from the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering include Engineering Physics Assistant Professor Ramathasan Thevamaran, Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Aviad Hai, and Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Shiva Rudraraju. Franck is the Grainger Institute for Engineering Professor of mechanical engineering.

Author: Adam Malecek