A magazine for friends of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Researchers Combine Forces to Detect, Prevent TBIs


$10 million federal grant expands research to protect against concussions.

Despite mounting concerns about concussions affecting athletes, soldiers, and others, these injuries remain frustratingly difficult to prevent or even diagnose.

A research collaboration including three Brown University professors has been working toward a comprehensive understanding of traumatic brain injury—linking the damage occurring at the cellular level in the brain with the forces and motions involved in blows to the head. The collaboration, called PANTHER, ultimately aims to develop new ways of detecting when a concussion has occurred, and new helmet technologies that better protect against them.

Now, that work is set to expand thanks to a new $10 million grant from the Office of Naval Research within the U.S. Department of the Navy.

“We know that repeated traumatic brain injuries can cause long-term problems. If we can make progress in detecting the initial injury, hopefully we can prevent some of those longer-term problems,” says Diane Hoffman-Kim PhD’93, an associate professor of medical science and of engineering who works on the project with fellow engineering faculty Haneesh Kesari, PhD, and David Henann.

PANTHER is led by Christian Franck, PhD, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who launched the project at Brown in 2017, when he was a professor in the School of Engineering. Franck is developing new techniques for imaging damage to individual cells following trauma, and is working to precisely quantify the forces required to cause that damage.

Hoffman-Kim is working to take Franck’s single-cell research to the level of cell clusters. She works with mini-brains, 3-D cultures of brain cells that mimic the basic functions of actual brains. Using these brain models, the researchers hope to learn more about the chemical signals exchanged between cells in response to trauma. Those signaling pathways could potentially serve as a means of concussion detection.

“Mini-brains are really just balls of cells, but they have electrical activity, capillary networks and they reliably approximate the cell density and the stiffness of the brain, which is all relevant to what we’re studying,” says Hoffman-Kim, who is affiliated with Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science. “With the PANTHER collaboration, we will be able to use mini-brains to do real-time injury detection and get a handle on the biochemical signals that occur as an injury progresses.”

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