With the Super Bowl a week away, football is on the minds of many fans of the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. While they are preoccupied with party planning, player stats and office pools, investigators at UCSB’s Brain Imaging Center are doing innovative research into brain injuries such as the concussions sustained during football games.
Officials of the Head Health Challenge, a $60 million research initiative begun last year through an alliance between the National Football League and GE, announced last week that the imaging center’s director, professor Scott Grafton, has been named the winner of a $300,000 research grant.
The Head Health initiative aims to advance the development of technologies to detect early-stage mild traumatic brain injuries (MTBIs) and improve brain protection. These first-round grants, awarded to 16 recipients out of more than 400 entries from 27 countries, support innovation in testing and treatments that could help not only football players, but also military service members and others who sustain such brain injuries.
“Our effort is in developing imaging methods that serve as biomarkers for mild brain injury,” Grafton, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, said in an Office of Public Affairs and Communications news release. “Once you have a biomarker, you have a whole new toolbox for identifying appropriate therapies.”
Helping to work on that toolbox is Matthew Cieslak, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
Cieslak, who earned a bachelor's degree in psychology with an emphasis in computational neuroscience from the University of Chicago in 2009, joined Dr. Grafton in this research upon his arrival at UCSB in 2010. Cieslak is interested in how action is represented in the brain, especially in the dynamics of networks that support the development and execution of expert motor skills.
“The project's goal is to take high-resolution scans of human brains and reconstruct the paths of connections between brain regions,” he said. “I developed the technique we're using to store and search through these data and wrote a software package that performs these operations.”
Dr. Grafton said studies have shown that repeated concussions can lead to a neurological condition called chronic progressive traumatic encephalopathy.
“It’s a progressive degeneration of the brain,” he explained in the news release. “A lot of football players have been developing memory loss and other problems over the last decade. We don’t know how many have this condition.”
Research through the Head Health Challenge will help to advance knowledge in this area.
In addition to Dr. Grafton, Cieslak works with Dr. Dani Bassett, Sage junior research fellow and postdoctoral research associate. They recently started collaborating with grad student Ben Baird from the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department, and they also have collaborators at Carnegie Mellon and Army Research Labs.
Cieslak says their studies have wider-reaching applications.
“Searching for connections that were lost due to injury is only one application of our method,” he said. “It can also be used to search for differences in brain connectivity that occur during brain development. For example, we are working with Professor Roger Ingham in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences to characterize differences in brain connectivity between adults who stutter and a cohort of age-matched controls.”
The beauty of the brain fascinates Cieslak.
“The most striking thing for me still is looking at the reconstructions of white matter tracts,” he said. “With such high-resolution scans you can really appreciate how complex and beautiful the organization of the brain is.”
Sharing tools and advancing others’ research are important to Cieslak: “One of the most satisfying parts of working on this project is being able to contribute open source software back to the neuroimaging community. This work wouldn't be possible if it weren't for others who have already contributed software.”
Unable to give details about their research subjects for privacy reasons, Cieslak did say that he has cousins who have sustained concussions while playing football, “but seem to have recovered with no long-term problems.”
When asked if he thinks the sport of football is too dangerous because of the risk of concussion, Cieslak replied that he isn’t qualified to answer that question.
“I've never been a football player and haven't seen any data from football players yet,” he said. “I think that in general it would be beneficial for society to be aware of how serious MTBI’s [mild traumatic brain injuries, or concussions] can be, then make informed decisions about which risky activities to engage in.”
He hopes to continue doing research after earning his doctorate, which he expects to receive in 2016.
“As long as I have an interesting problem to work on and lots of data to look at," he said, "I could be happy almost anywhere.”
For more information about the Head Health Challenge, the Brain Imaging Center's work, and UCSB’s award, read the Office of Public Affairs and Communications news release and the NFL’s news release; and view the video above.