Washington University in St. Louis engineering researchers have received a five-year, $2.25 million grant to better understand traumatic brain injuries in efforts to improve methods for prevention and treatment.
Philip Bayly, PhD, the Lilyan and E. Lisle Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering and chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, is principal investigator of the grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The grant will allow Bayly and his research team to develop 3-D computer models of brain biomechanics that will give researchers and clinicians a better understanding about what happens to the brain during traumatic brain injury. Previously, Bayly and his research team measured brain motion and mechanical properties of the brain in 2-D.
Head injuries, concussions and the resulting trauma have been in public discussion recently as the National Football League (NFL) deals with a lawsuit regarding head injuries by about one-third of living former NFL players. The league is accused of not providing information connecting football-related head injuries to brain damage, memory loss and other long-term health issues.
"We are concerned about everyone who hits their head," Bayly says. "It's not only a factor for NFL players, but anyone who's had a traumatic brain injury is at greater risk for Alzheimer's disease and potentially other neurological disorders. We're also concerned about basketball players or soccer players who also get concussions, so it's a widespread problem."
With the new funding, the team plans to get a 3-D picture of the strain throughout the brain during low-level normal head motions. To do so, researchers will measure 3-D relative motion between the brain and the skull and estimate strain in live human and cadaver brains during mild head acceleration. In addition, they plan to assess the effects of residual stress on the human brain and compare 3-D displacement and strain fields to the computer models.
"The world is going to learn about the basic physics of brain injury, but also develop approaches to prevention and therapy, through computer simulation," he says. "It's really hard to simulate the brain because it's really complicated. The necessary ingredients for good simulations are materials, the structure, how the materials are put together and data for validation. That's what we're providing."
The team also is providing the opportunity to check the simulations through image processing techniques so other researchers can take that data and validate the simulations.
Bayly says it's very difficult to study brain biomechanics without models.
"When you're moving around, your brain is suspended," he says. "The suspension of the brain in the skull is really important. We found that when you're moving your head normally, and even in mild concussions, it's probably not the impact of the brain against the skull that provides most deformation. It's probably the brain working against the suspension in side that's producing most of the deformation."
By studying chronic traumatic brain injury in football players, other researchers have found that the concentration of nerve damage or protein accumulations near blood vessels may be due to the mechanical effects of blood vessels restraining the tissues.
"This is an example where understanding mechanics can give insight into mechanism and potential therapeutic strategy," Bayly says. Bayly is working with Jerry L. Prince, PhD, the William B. Kouwenhoven Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and KT Ramesh, PhD, professor of mechanical engineering, both at Johns Hopkins University; as well as Dzung Pham at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation.