From the playing fields of the Big Ten Conference to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, traumatic brain injury (TBI) has become a pressing medical issue. Yet those at risk aren’t just athletes strapping on football helmets or soldiers climbing into Humvees — they are drivers navigating highways, children turning cartwheels in the yard, and the elderly navigating tricky stairs.
In 2013, more than 2.8 million emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and deaths were associated with TBI, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And as awareness and reporting of these injuries rise, so do questions for researchers.
“What factors control the different recovery rates for TBI?” asks University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) biology professor Elizabeth Quinlan, PhD. “What can be done to reduce risk and optimize recovery?”
The Center for Sports Medicine, Health and Human Performance in the new Cole Field House at UMCP will be at the forefront of tackling this public health problem and advancing the science of sport in a partnership with the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB).
The center’s research, co-directed by Quinlan and Alan Faden, MD, the David S. Brown Professor in Trauma at the University of Maryland School of Medicine at UMB, will bring together the scientific expertise of UMCP with the clinical and research capabilities of UMB’s professional schools. It is a collaboration through the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership: MPowering the State initiative.
“The breadth and scope of this center is well beyond what currently exists in other sports performance centers,” Faden says. “It is intended to harness unique and complementary capabilities across the two universities.”
The new Cole, expected to be completed in 2019, brings academics and entrepreneurship, football operations, and athletic training together under one roof. It will provide more than 40,000 square feet of research and clinical space for experts in neuroimaging, genomics, and biomechanics, in addition to a center for orthopaedic care and TBI treatment, which together will translate advances from the lab to the broader community.
Kevin Plank, a 1996 UMCP graduate and the founder and CEO of Under Armour, Inc., pledged $25 million to launch the project and has called the new center an opportunity to “define a new era for Maryland.”
The driving focus of that new era will be to address one of the most important medical issues of modern life.
“A significant percentage of the population will suffer a head injury,” Faden says. “The number of individuals affected is considerably larger than previously recognized, and the negative outcomes are often longer sustained than generally appreciated by physicians.”
These injuries can cause depression, sleep disorders, and cognitive decline and adversely impact a victim’s ability to function.
Even though adult brains are much less “plastic” than those of children, research shows how some flexibility can be reactivated post-injury. For example, exercise, intermittent fasting, and cognitive training have the capability to limit the consequences of brain injury and facilitate recovery.
“Each of these potential therapies may tap into the same mechanisms to promote plasticity,” Quinlan says. “When is the most important time to learn? When you are stressed, when you are challenged, when you are in ‘fight or flight’ mode.”
Researchers at the new center, with its community of scientists and clinicians, will explore the details of these processes by creating enhanced diagnostic tools and using “big data” computing capabilities to map the brain’s complex metabolic pathways and neuronal connections.
“We will utilize a wide array of advanced research tools to study the mechanisms that lead to cell death or cell dysfunction after brain injury, with the goal of improving recovery and limiting disability,” Faden says.
Already, $3 million in MPowering the State funds have been invested to address novel approaches to head injury and promote collaborations between UMCP and UMB faculty. Research areas include functional mapping of brain activity, spinal cord injury repair, and the effect of TBI on human genes and microbes.
That is the center’s starting point. But the true benefit, Quinlan says, is opening a door to a fuller understanding of the human brain.
“The collection of experts from diverse fields will allow us to approach problems in an exciting and highly interdisciplinary way,” she says.