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Brown University researchers study how traumatic brain injuries occur

Brown University researchers recently received $4.75 million in grant money to extensively study how traumatic brain injuries occur, promising to lead to head protection. (WJAR)

Brown University researchers recently received $4.75 million in grant money to extensively study how traumatic brain injuries occur, promising to lead to head protection.

"All the helmets that are currently on the market are really evaluated and benchmarked by preventing the skull from fracturing, not the brain,” said Christian Franck, the grant’s principal investigator and an associate professor in the Brown University School of Engineering.

That includes football, hockey, and even advanced combat military helmets.

Franck’s team is taking a closer look at how brain cells behave under the influence of trauma. He said it's not an easy task.

"It's important to understand that the brain is a very delicate, very complicated structure,” said Franck. “Understanding how physical forces penetrate and propagate the brain is complicated."

But they've been at it awhile and are making headway by developing a novel device for measuring the effects of traumatic forces on animal cells.

"And that allows us to get to speeds at which we see in, for example, football injuries," said Jon Estrada, PhD, who works in Franck’s lab.

In a 2016 paper published in Scientific Reports, Franck and his team showed how soon cells start to die after a traumatic blow to the head.

“So, we're looking for deterioration of cells over time, whether they immediately die or do they die as a function of time? And we're seeing that the cells that actually are damaged or deteriorate fully in the course of around eight hours. That's important because if you have a player become injured in a game, they're not going to be sent out eight hours later. They're going to be sent back out in to the game immediately.”

That would potentially cause further damage, possibly even death, to brain cells.

"The idea is that we can translate the findings from the lab bench rapidly into the commerce space with the goal to design helmets that are specifically focused on protecting the brain," said Franck.

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