Back to the Field or Back to the Bench? New Tool for Predicting Traumatic Brain Injury Outcomes
Researchers are investigating whether function of the somatosensory center in the brain, which processes information about how we experience touch, is a reliable measure of concussion and recovery from concussion. If so, a small, portable tool, like the one used by fifteen-year-old Madison Airey (above), could be used in schools and on sidelines.
These are the kinds of questions Kennedy Krieger researchers are trying to answer with a new study on traumatic brain injury funded by the National Institutes of Health in partnership with the National Football League (NFL).
With the NFL acknowledging a connection between concussion and long-term neurological problems, more patients are seeking treatment for head injuries that may once have been brushed off. The problem that remains, though, is the lack of an objective tool or test to reliably diagnose a concussion and then also evaluate recovery.
Currently, physicians rely partly on the patient and parents to describe the onset and resolution of symptoms, such as headache, dizziness, feeling off balance, and difficulty thinking or remembering. Doctors also can give a physical exam and cognitive testing immediately after the concussion and during a later follow-up visit, but these results may be misleading.
“Research shows that, even if the child seems back to his active self and is performing at the same level as prior to injury, he may be using more brain resources to do that,” explains Stacy Suskauer, M.D., director of Brain Injury Rehabilitation Programs at Kennedy Krieger.
The new study, led by Dr. Suskauer, will investigate whether the body’s own somatosensory system information processing (SSIP) is sensitive to concussion, and whether SSIP can be used as a biomarker for concussion and recovery in youth aged 13-17.
The experiments use a small, portable device that delivers painless vibrations to the fingertips, and the child responds based on what he senses. The child’s perception of the vibrations reflects activity of sensory neurons in the brain, thereby providing a measure of SSIP. Teens are tested within a week of the concussion, and again 3-4 weeks later. The study will also investigate whether changes in SSIP are related to differences in certain brain chemicals after head injury.
“If we have a tool that we can use clinically to better understand when functioning of the brain has actually returned to baseline, it would help to prevent sending a child back to play when the brain is still recovering from concussion and very vulnerable to a second injury,” Dr. Suskauer says.
For more information about this and other research studies at Kennedy Krieger Institute, visit kennedykrieger.org/research-training