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Pitt joins national team looking to unravel traumatic brain injuries

Luis Fábregas
| Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, 3:36 p.m.

A simple blood test could one day help doctors determine whether someone suffered a traumatic brain injury and what type of treatment is needed, according to University of Pittsburgh researchers who on Tuesday joined a large-scale partnership focused on the life-threatening injuries.

The public-private partnership will use $17 million from the Department of Defense but could benefit more than soldiers injured on the battlefield, brain injury experts said. Athletes and young children are among the more than 2.5 million people who suffer traumatic brain injuries every year in the United States.

“What we are looking to evaluate are biological measures to assess whether someone has a traumatic brain injury. Is there something in the blood that we can measure? Is there something that we can look at in a picture of the brain that can tell us if a person has or doesn't have a traumatic brain injury?” said Stephen Wisniewski, senior investigator of the TBI Endpoints Development Award and co-director of the Epidemiology Data Center at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health.

An estimated 2 percent of the population lives with disabilities caused by traumatic brain injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Brain injury experts say no treatment for acute traumatic brain injury and concussions has proved to be effective.

Doctors and trainers use computerized cognitive testing to assess brain injuries, yet Wisniewski said such testing might not help someone who shows up in the emergency department without a baseline evaluation. He said researchers want to come up with better ways to measure how patients recover based on the severity of their injuries.

“If someone has a concussion on the sports field, the outcomes you are interested in are very different than those from a person who had a car accident and hit his head on the windshield,” he said.

In addition to Pitt, the partnership includes leading clinicians and scientists from universities, foundations and federal agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration. The principal investigator overseeing the project will be Dr. Geoffrey Manley, chief of neurosurgery at San Francisco General Hospital.

At Pitt, Wisniewski and his team will analyze data for the project, using information obtained in prior studies of traumatic brain injuries. That analysis will be used for clinical trials. Neurosurgeon David Okonkwo will help lead the second phase of the project, including selecting patients for trials.

The partnership arises as the federal government pushes ahead with plans to map the human brain. As part of the federal BRAIN Initiative, researchers nationwide are looking to explore what causes diseases such as Alzheimer's and epilepsy. The National Institutes of Health on Tuesday announced grants of $46 million for 58 brain-related projects. In addition, federal officials said companies, universities and other nongovernmental groups have pledged roughly $270 million for the initiative.

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media's medical editor. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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