Computer model could help in treatment, prevention of concussions

Researchers are testing a new computer process developed by engineers at Johns Hopkins University that already has shown an ability to pinpoint how certain collisions and awkward head movements impact different parts of the brain. The technique, according to a recent JHU announcement, could be useful in the creation of updated medical treatments for head injuries, and also holds potential for changing the cultures of some sports, such as football or hockey.

"Concussion-related injuries can develop even when nothing has physically touched the head, and no damage is apparent on the skin," says K.T. Ramesh, a professor of science and engineering with Johns Hopkins who is leading the research. "Think about a soldier who is knocked down by the blast wave of an explosion, or a football player reeling after a major collision. The person may show some loss of cognitive function, but you may not immediately see anything in a CT-scan or MRI that tells you exactly where and how much damage has been done to the brain.

"You don't know what happened to the brain, so how do you figure out how to treat it?" Ramesh asked.

The process, unveiled in a study published online last fall in the Journal of Neurotrauma, combines an MRI technique known as diffusion tensor imaging with a computer model of the head. The model allows researchers to not only identify injured fibers known as axons, but to also determine how different collisions will impact different parts of the brain.

Despite those findings, researchers say additional testing and validation is necessary to make the model ready for clinical use.  Ramesh specifically wants to conduct before-and-after comparisons for soldiers and athletes--those with a relatively high-risk of being a part of such collisions--a process that would involve collecting brain images prior to entering combat or game scenarios. Event reconstruction to test the accuracy of the process also is necessary, according to the announcement.

Similar research is being conducted by Ramesh and researchers at Washington University in St. Louis led by Philip Bayly, a professor of engineering at the school who recently received a $2.25 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Funding for Ramesh's JHU-based work was provided by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the Whiting School-based Center for Advanced Metallic and Ceramic Systems.

Computational models also are increasingly helping healthcare researchers to understand how to both identify and treat complex diseases, according to an article published last fall by four Johns Hopkins professors in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

To learn more:
- here's the JHU announcement
- check out the Journal of Neurotrauma abstract

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