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Brain and spinal cord Injury research programs at VA

May 14, 2013 College News - The Medical College of Wisconsin and the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center are collaborating to improve the lives of those with traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries.

Traumatic Brain Injury

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a worldwide health concern, with 3.8 million people suffering from a head injury annually.  The number of military personnel suffering from a head injury has dramatically risen in recent years, and TBI is often considered the “signature wound” of the current military conflicts. Researchers in the Department of Neurosurgery’s brain injury research program located at the VA are using many different approaches to investigate TBI.  The goals of the program are to devise more effective prevention strategies and develop better treatment and recovery options.

Brains in a dish

Researchers are using sections of brain tissue grown in culture to visualize the effects of trauma directly on the neurons and other cells within the brain.  These models will help in understanding how the cells respond to different forces and types of trauma.  Promising therapies, including stem cell treatments, are being tested to understand how they could be used to improve recovery from a traumatic brain injury.

A window to the brain

Magnetic resonance imaging is being used to examine the effects of brain trauma in living subjects.  New techniques are being developed that can monitor microscopic changes in the brain that are too small to be seen in a typical clinical exam.  These promising technologies may be used in the future to diagnose TBI.  The same methods are also being used to see how the brain recovers from injury and to evaluate how drugs or rehabilitation might change the brain in ways that promote recovery.

Building a better model

Mild injury or concussion is the most common type of head injury, but most laboratory studies of head injury model severe or blunt trauma injuries.  A more relevant model of mild TBI has been developed to better understand how the brain is injured in a mild head impact and how it recovers from the injury.  These efforts are being used to understand how to prevent head injury and how even a mild head injury might cause long-lasting consequences.

Spinal cord injury

Spinal cord injury affects more than 12,000 Americans annually – including returning veterans – and health care for those individuals exceeds $6 billion. The Department of Neurosurgery’s spinal cord injury research program located at the VA includes a group of investigators with varied areas of expertise who are working to make improvements in care and find new therapies for patients with spinal cord injuries. 

Brain cells from blood cells

Researchers are obtaining cells from the bone marrow and converting them into neurons, the primary type of cell in the brain.  These cells are being evaluated in spinal cord injury in the hopes that it will allow patients to recover from such a devastating and life-changing injury.  This approach avoids many of the ethical concerns and medical complications of other types of stem cell therapies, since the cells are taken directly from the same patient to which they will be given.

Using water to predict recovery

With current methods or clinical exams, it is difficult to predict how, when, and if patients will recover from a spinal cord injury.  Researcher are using a technique that visualizes how water molecules move in the spinal cord, called Diffusion Tensor Imaging, to more accurately detect the severity of an injury and to predict how much recovery will take place.  The technique is being used to visualize how the spinal cord repairs itself after injury, and how certain therapies might be used speed up that process.

Funding for these projects has come from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin, and the Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation, which donated $1 million to MCW to support spinal cord injury research and establish the Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation Laboratories.

Faculty members involved in these research projects include Dennis J. Maiman, MD, PhD, Chairman and Sanford J. Larson, MD, PhD Professor of Neurosurgery; Frank A. Pintar, PhD, Professor of Neurosurgery and Director of the Neuroscience Research Labs; Brian D. Stemper, PhD, Associate Professor of Neurosurgery;  Arshak Alexanian, PhD, VMD, Associate Professor of Neurosurgery; Matthew  Budde, PhD, Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery; Aleksandra Glavaski-Joksimovic, PhD, Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery; and Shekar Kurpad, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Neurosurgery, Director of the Spinal Cord Injury Lab at the VA and Medical Director of the Spinal Cord Injury Center at Froedtert Hospital.

Staff involved in these research projects include Brandy Aperi, Research Technologist; James Budzinski, Research Associate; Rachel Chiariello, Research Technologist; Alok Shaw, Engineer; Christy Stadig, Program Manager; Kyle Stehlick, Research Technologist; Justine Treuden, Research Technologist; Natasha Wilkins, Lab Technician; and Aditya Vedantam, MD, Postdoctoral Fellow.

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Page Updated 07/23/2013