Brain Research at UNC Draws National Attention

Igor Szczyrba

UNC Professor of Mathematical Sciences Igor Szczyrba poses while skiing at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. He hopes his research in modeling traumatic brain injuries will result in better helmets for a variety of sports. Photo courtesy of Igor Szczyrba.

While Colorado and other states are taking measures to help sport coaches recognize concussions in young athletes, research on traumatic brain injuries being conducted at the University of Northern Colorado is informing how helmets might better protect the athletes from injury in the first place.

UNC Mathematical Sciences Professor Igor Szczyrba and fellow researchers are working with football helmet manufacturer Riddell and computer chip maker Intel to use helmet sensor-collected data and mathematics/computer modeling to predict the kinds of hits that cause injury.

“The idea behind our research is to use mathematics and computers to model how the brain matter or brain tissue behaves during accidents,” Szczyrba said. “The skull need not be broken to sustain an injury. Actually, the most dangerous ones are those that you cannot diagnose immediately.”

Szczyrba described the brain as “a physical medium - like a jello,” housed within the skull, with no void space and incompressible because it’s made up of 80 percent water. When different portions of the brain move violently from a sudden and drastic increase or decrease in momentum, a critical strain on veins and neurons can result.

“An injured brain can heal and even adapt, but it might not be back to 100 percent,” Szczyrba said, stressing the importance of being aware of the devastating reality of traumatic brain injuries and their possible repercussions.

Szczyrba said his hope is that the research will reduce head injuries through the use of better helmets in a variety of sports and outdoor activities, while potentially helping doctors in designing treatment methods.

He noted that according to National Institute of Health statistics, millions are affected by traumatic brain injuries every year that result in huge costs on society, financially and physically.

“I think that the Colorado Senate Bill 40 is a good thing. It forces people to look at traumatic brain injuries more seriously, especially since young people are involved in sports, enforcing more check-ups when there is a suspicion of a concussion for example,” Szczyrba said.

The recently passed bill, designed to help protect young athletes by requiring their coaches to annually take a free online concussion recognition course, becomes law on Jan. 1, 2012.

Of Note
Other brain research currently underway at UNC includes:

A program project by UNC Psychological Sciences Professor Theodore Bashore has three components designed to better understand the effects of traumatic brain injury on neurocognitive functioning. Bashore’s research was awarded more than $150,000 by the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Science.

Mark Thomas, a Biological Sciences professor at UNC, was recently awarded a $60,000 grant from The Brain and Behavior Research Fund of the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression for his research on the relationship between schizophrenia and levels of dopamine, which regulate behavior and cognitive functions in the brain.

- Fiza Johari