Searching for Hard-Hitting Solutions to Traumatic Brain Injury

head injury photo

Earlier this season, former UT quarterback David Ash made the decision to quit after suffering a series of concussions so severe that team doctors told Ash that if he were their own son, they would not let him continue to play football. Ash had missed a large part of the previous season due to recurring symptoms from his concussions. This isn’t the first time this has happened. In 2010 the ailing Texas Football program took a heavy hit when the team’s top running back, Tre’ Newton, announced his departure from the sport. Newton had suffered seven concussions in nine seasons and made the decision that his health would be at risk if he continued to play football.

What happened to Newton and Ash is particularly dangerous, not only because they suffered head injuries, but also because doctors aren’t entirely sure what’s happening with each concussion. Most head injury treatments are based on data acquired over two decades ago and each head injury is treated as more or less the same thing, says UT psychology professor Alex Valadka. “Right now, you come into the emergency room and they say, ‘Oh, that’s a head injury.’ [They] are not all the same,” Valadka says.

According to Valadka, most of our modern understanding of head injuries comes from research gathered from comatose patients in the 1980s, which may explain the gap. Valadka and his colleague David Schyner have joined a national group of researchers that recently received a $17 million grant from the Department of Defense to research traumatic brain injuries beyond the scope of comas. The funds will bolster a long-term study called TRACK-TBI. The purpose of the project—which will follow patients and collect data on symptoms, treatment, genetics, results, and more—is to build a comprehensive database in order to gain a better understanding of head injuries of all types. The integrated dataset can be analyzed to find associations among brain injuries that could lead to new breakthroughs.

“It’s trying to tie up those same principles compared to that traumatic coma database from the 80s,” Valadka says. “The difference here is that we’re looking at the whole spectrum of brain injury, not just coma.”

With that database, Valadka, Schyner and their colleagues hope to gain a new understanding of how traumatic brain injuries of all varieties work. Even with added resources and refocused efforts to understand TBI, the task is still extremely daunting. “We have a really precise model of the way the heart functions,” Schyner says. It’s easy to damage the heart, but also easy to know how to fix it, he says. “The problem with the brain is that it’s so complex and we’re so far away from having a precise model of how it works.”

Schyner also points out that preliminary efforts to further understand milder forms of TBI have started to yield effects. “There’s about a 10-to-15 percent drop in high school football enrollment, which I’m sure is parents being exposed to the information about TBI, and saying, ‘Hey, my kid’s not going to do that.’”

Although football is dominating the conversation now, the implications of TBI research aren’t limited to the consequences of sports injuries.

“What’s happening in the Middle East has led to long-term effects of traumatic brain injury and PTSD,” Schnyer says. “There’s a fair amount of evidence that there’s a bit of overlap between those things.” The effects of TBI are widespread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 2 percent of the U.S. population suffers from disabilities resulting from traumatic brain injury, costing Americans $77 billion annually.

Schnyer says that TBIs—whether extreme or relatively mild—are all frustrating to researchers. “You can encounter somebody who has had a very severe traumatic brain injury who is extremely disabled and will never return to being productive in the world or even communicate with their own family,” he says. But many patients with milder injuries still have long-term psychological and cognitive problems. “They seem so simple to fix, yet we can’t fix them,” Schnyer says. 

If programs like TRACK-TBI are successful, we stand to gain a lot more than rushing yards—the 2.5 million Americans who seek treatment for traumatic brain injuries each year may finally get some answers.

Photo courtesy John Martinez Pavliga.


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