Pitt Team Receives $5.4 Million From Department of Defense For High-Definition Scans of Soldiers With Brain Injuries

Issue Date: 
November 12, 2012

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have received two grants totaling $5.4 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to evaluate whether a new imaging tool called high-definition fiber tracking can accurately diagnose traumatic brain injuries in wounded warriors.

Officials announced the grants during a Nov. 9 scientific symposium at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, Oakland, that introduced the University’s Center for Military Medicine Research to the community.

The Center for Military Medicine Research and the high-definition fiber tracking project are examples of the commitment that the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and 100 medical schools around the country have made to meet the health needs of the military and their families, said Arthur S. Levine, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and medical school dean.

“In January 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama announced a collaboration with the nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals as part of the Joining Forces initiative, which underscores the need for new [traumatic brain injury] interventions to enrich medical education to better serve our military, veterans and their families, and to improve their health,” Levine said. “We were particularly honored that during her speech, the First Lady noted the potential of high-definition fiber tracking in leading to breakthroughs in the diagnosis of [traumatic brain injury], which could begin with this new study.”

Conventional CT and MRI scans often are unable to reveal damage to the brain’s network of neural cables, or fiber tracts, that could cause significant cognitive or physical impairments after a traumatic brain injury, explained principal investigator David Okonkwo, a professor of neurological surgery, clinical director of Pitt’s Brain Trauma Research Center, and director of the Neurotrauma Program at UPMC and the Pitt School of Medicine.

“Our preliminary research indicates that [high-definition fiber tracking] can reveal breaks in brain wiring, just like X-rays show us broken bones,” Okonkwo said. “That’s a big step forward because knowing where the damage lies will allow us to better plan our treatments and give [traumatic brain injury] patients more accurate predictions of the long-term prognosis.”

In the new study, a team led by Okonkwo and Walter Schneider, a professor and senior scientist at Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center, will perform high-definition fiber tracking scans at UPMC or Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on 240 soldiers who have sustained a traumatic brain injury and in 60 uninjured volunteers. The researchers hope to show that high-definition fiber tracking is able to identify fiber damage and correlate it with neurologic symptoms, including post-concussion syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“This is one of the many projects underway at Pitt that focus attention on the medical needs of wounded warriors,” said Col. (ret.) Ronald K. Poropatich, a physician and executive director of Pitt’s Center for Military Medicine Research. The newly established center “aims to support these efforts and develop new opportunities to advance military medicine, which has a track record of leading to innovative treatments for civilians.”

In August, Pennsylvania deployed its 30,000th soldier to Iraq or Afghanistan, noted Poropatich, a Pittsburgh native who is an expert in telemedicine. He added that soldiers, veterans, and their families should receive not only high-quality, accessible medical and surgical care, but also the best knowledge and innovation that research can provide.“

Last month, the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute was designated a Model System of Care for Traumatic Brain Injury by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, and studies to assess regenerative medical approaches to wound healing are underway,” said Rocky Tuan, founding director of the Center for Military Medicine Research, executive vice chair for research in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, and associate director of the Pitt-UPMC McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Proposals for other military medicine research projects are in the pipeline.