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Research Groups

Mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), also known as concussion, is an important public health issue because of its prevalence and potentially serious and lasting effects on mood, memory, and sensory and motor function, all of which adversely affect well-being. Some of the effects on mood, such as depression, anxiety and irritability, overlap those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an issue facing many military personnel, and as a result PTSD is often regarded as one outcome of TBI. The spinal cord can be injured by the same concussive forces that damage the brain, such as in an automobile collision, and result in motor impairment. Moreover, those experiencing multiple concussions are at increased risk for such debilitating neurodegenerative diseases as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). Multiple concussions or even repeated subconcussive blows to the head can also lead to the progressive degenerative disease that was originally called pugilistica dementia when it was thought to be limited largely to boxers. This disease is characterized by memory loss, depression, irritability and a specific type of brain pathology, and is now referred to as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), since it has been seen in some individuals engaged in high-impact sports (football, soccer, hockey, rugby) and in professions where repeated head impact is common, such as the military.

Researchers and clinicians at UTHSC are investigating how traumatic injury to the nervous system produces adverse consequences for mood, memory, and sensory and motor function, and are seeking to develop appropriate treatments.  To this end, Anton Reiner and Marcia Honig of the Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology have developed mouse models of concussive injury to the brain and spinal cord to examine the role of axonal injury, neuron loss, and neuroinflammation in the neuropsychiatric, visual and motor deficits after such injuries.  The role of specific patterns of neuronal loss in the amygdala, a structure long known to be involved in emotion, in the PTSD-like symptoms after TBI is being studied with Scott Heldt (Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology), and the role of electrophysiological abnormalities in frontal cortex (which are also involved in emotion and executive function) in the PTSD-like symptoms are being studied with Detlef Heck (Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology).  

A $418,000 grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes will allow Dr. Hetlef (center, pictured with Dr. Anton Reiner (left) and Dr. Bob Moore, to explore treatment options for mild traumatic brain injury.
A $418,000 grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes will allow Dr. Hetlef (center, pictured with Dr. Anton Reiner (left) and Dr. Bob Moore, to explore treatment options for mild traumatic brain injury.

This research group is also testing therapies that improve the recovery from sensory, motor and neuropsychiatric deficits after mild TBI. For example, together with Bob Moore of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, drug therapies that control the neuroinflammatory response to neural injury and thereby improve the recovery after mild TBI are being tested. The value of adipose-derived stem cells as a treatment for the ocular injury after concussion is being assessed with Shekhar Gangaraju (Department of Ophthalmology), and the benefits of prolonged sedation in the recovery from concussion are being evaluated with Edward Chaum (Department of Ophthalmology).

Drs. Reiner and Honig, together with Mike Levin of the Department of Neurology and the Veterans Administration Medical Center, are also studying the mechanisms responsible for the long-term neurodegenerative process initiated by single or multiple TBI that leads to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS and CTE. Jack Tsao, also of the Department of Neurology and the Veterans Administration Medical Center, is treating military victims of TBI and seeking to develop improved treatment options using animal models. To better understand the risks of sports concussions and identify treatment approaches to enhance recovery, Asim Choudhri (Department of Radiology), Shalini Narayana (Department of Pediatrics), and Brandon Baughman (Department of Neurosurgery) are using imaging and psychological profiling methods in human subjects, while Andy Papnicolaou (Department of Pediatrics) has used magneto-encephalography to study how concussion alters communication between different brain regions. Finally, Brad Roper and Ellen Crouse of the Department of Psychiatry and the Veterans Administration Medical Center treat veterans suffering from PTSD.

Together these workers form a collaborative team investigating how concussive trauma leads to neuronal and axonal injury in the eye, brain, and spinal cord, and thereby causes diverse visual, motor, and neuropsychiatric impairments. Those wishing to support this work can make donations to the TBI and PTSD Research Fund or to the Spinal Cord Fund, using the links provided to the right. For more information contact: Anton Reiner at areiner@uthsc.edu.

Last Published: Dec 20, 2019