Tackling Concussion Research in Boston

The NIH announced two new research projects in Boston funded mostly by a donation from the NFL.

football helmet photo

Football helmet image via shutterstock

In 2012, the NFL donated $30 million to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) for research studies on injuries affecting athletes, with brain trauma and concussion research being the primary area of focus. This is different than the $100 million the NFLPA gave to Harvard Medical School to study brain trauma. Clearly, the NFL and its players and former players know there is a serious problem.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) affects all age groups. There is concern about the potential long-term effects of repeated concussion, particularly in those most at risk: young athletes and those engaged in professions associated with frequent head injury, including men and women in the military and professional athletes.

“We need to be able to predict which patterns of injury are rapidly reversible and which are not. This program will help researchers get closer to answering some of the important questions about concussion for our youth who play sports and their parents,” said Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has selected eight projects to receive support to answer some of the most fundamental problems on traumatic brain injury, including understanding long-term effects of repeated head injuries and improving diagnosis of concussions. The eight projects were selected by the NIH following what they say is a rigorous scientific review process.

Two of the eight projects are at Boston hospitals:

CTE and Post-traumatic Neurodegeneration: Neuropathology and Ex Vivo Imaging

Principal Investigator: Dr. Ann C. McKee, Boston University School of Medicine and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

At present, the diagnosis of CTE is made by examining the brain after death; however, the range of specific features that identify this disorder has not been established. One goal of Dr. McKee’s project is to define a clear set of criteria for the various stages of CTE and to distinguish it from Alzheimer’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and other neurodegenerative disorders in post-mortem brain tissue. Once these characteristics have been defined in brain tissue, the imaging teams at Washington University in St. Louis and Massachusetts General Hospital  in Boston will correlate them with brain scans to identify features that might eventually be used to diagnose CTE in individuals during their lifetimes.

“The investigators will collaborate to develop diagnostic criteria for identifying the chronic features of the entire scope of brain trauma ranging from mild TBI to full-blown CTE, and then work to extend these criteria to living humans using some of the most advanced neuroimaging tools available,” said Dr. Walter Koroshetz, deputy director of NINDS.

Characterization of the Brain and Serum Metabolome in Mouse Models of Concussion

Principal Investigator: Dr. Michael J. Whalen, Massachusetts General Hospital 

Metabolites are small molecules formed in the body as a result of the normal breakdown of proteins, drugs and other large molecules. The collection of all metabolites in the body is the metabolome. Studies have suggested that head injury may change levels of various brain byproducts, but this has not been researched in a systematic way. Dr. Whalen and his group plan to use an experimental model of traumatic brain injury to conduct a detailed analysis of changes in the brain metabolome following concussion. The researchers will compare those differences with serum byproducts to determine if the changes can be revealed in blood samples. The results of this project may uncover metabolites that contribute to serious effects of traumatic brain injury and may help identify potential targets for detecting and treating concussions.

The new NIH Neurobiobank will coordinate the tissue collection, data gathering, and also distribute biospecimens, along with relevant information to enable other scientists to access this valuable tissue. Although this is only the beginning of the research, it seems that the NFL is open to working with scientists to better improve the game’s safety, and hopefully save lives along the way.