Cleveland Clinic, School to Study Brain Injuries

February 6, 2012

Two competitive Ohio medical research institutions are teaming up at a new lab to study head and spinal injuries that occur in sports and combat.

The Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University will jointly run the Cleveland Traumatic Neuromechanics Consortium, working to learn more about the causes of head and neck injuries and to create better protection and treatment, The Plain Dealer reported Saturday.

“There are many more questions than answers” about brain injuries, said mechanical engineer Adam Bartsch, who leads the Clinic’s Head, Neck and Spine Research Laboratory. One of those questions is what level of force or number of repeated impacts causes temporary or permanent brain damage. There’s concern that injuries like concussions can cause lasting damage.

The lab will search for answers with specialized equipment, including an air-powered ram that will be used to test football helmets on replica human heads by mimicking certain impacts, such as a straight-line hit or an oblique, head-spinning blow from an aggressive NFL linebacker barreling into a quarterback, which some researchers suspect may be even more damaging.

Developing sensors for the test heads and simulations of how a brain reacts might help the researchers better understand what causes concussions, and that could pave the way for better rules or safety standards and improved helmets and other protective gear.

“There are things that can be done to the helmet that would be helpful in basically absorbing energy and protecting the head,” said Case Western mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Vikas Prakash, who has worked on creating better protective gear for military personnel and vehicles. “Engineering-wise, it’s very rich.”

Prakash and Bartsch, who are co-directing the joint research effort, unpacked the air-powered ram – known as a linear impacter – this week. Later they plan to add high-speed cameras and a ballistic air gun. That would allow them to study the type of brain injuries caused by roadside bombs through simulations of the shock-wave effects.

The number of concussions from sports and battlefield service has drawn attention to brain injury care in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports athletic activities lead to nearly 4 million concussions a year. A study by the nonprofit Rand Corp. determined at least 320,000 U.S. troops that served in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade suffered probable concussions, the newspaper said.

Bartsch and Prakash said they will pursue funding for their research from government grants, private donors and organizations such as the National Football League and the Department of Defense.

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