Understanding traumatic brain injuries at the point of impact
The effects of head injuries can vary wildly. Some people hit their head hard enough to be admitted to the intensive care unit, and are given a poor prognosis, only to ultimately recover and live independently.
Others might suffer a minor concussion that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but then find that the negative effects drag on for months and ultimately get worse.
“There are very different responses to injuries that seem to be the same, and it’s very mysterious and intriguing to me because maybe people are not the same,” said John Finan, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC. “I’m interested in why people have such different prognoses. It’s why we can’t make progress on treating these injuries.”
Understanding the injury goes beyond knowing what caused it. “The injury is a certain amount of strain and a certain amount of stress that occurs during a certain number of milliseconds,” Finan said. “The tissue deforms and it stretches and, in that instant, it’s changed. A perfectly healthy brain is aged decades in a matter of tens of milliseconds.”
Without sensors or cameras to document what happened, there’s very little data to understand exactly happened mechanically to that person’s brain. Finan set out to change just that. He and his colleagues developed a new tool that allows them to traumatize organoids — three-dimensional cell cultures that incorporate some of the key features of the represented organ and are capable of recapitulating some of its functions — and study traumatic brain injury using experiments and modeling based in stem cell research.
“We can see changes. The mitochondria, which are the power sources for the cells, start to malfunction. The activity of these cells – even though it’s not a brain and it can’t think – there are surges of primitive activity, which we can see with the microscope. We can see them decline after we traumatize them,” he said.
These findings were recently published in the journal Disease Models and Mechanisms.
The researchers want to get to the point where they can look at a patient’s cells and say whether that patient will have a good or bad outcome after a head injury.
“Eventually, I’d like to be able to compare that to clinical reality to prove that it’s true,” Finan said. “In brain injury, some people are studs, meaning they can take a punch, and some people are duds, meaning they can’t. Once we figure out who is who, we can compare studs to studs and duds to duds when we take a drug to clinical trial and it will be much easier to tell if the drug is helping.”
Learn more about Finan’s research at Finan Lab.