UTA wins grant to study brain trauma


Possible cavitation damage to a boat propeller
Possible cavitation damage to a boat propeller Getty Images/iStockphoto

On the battlefield, soldiers gear up in head-to-toe military wear, most of it helping to reduce the risk of bullets or of shrapnel from explosions. But nothing truly blunts the effects of an explosion’s shockwave.

A concussive blast can have damaging effects on soldiers even if they don’t suffer physical injury.

A UTA bioengineering professor and chairman of the Bioengineering Department, Michael Cho, is leading a research team hoping to learn how shock waves can damage the brain.

Scientists suspect shock waves can cause microcavitations, or tiny bubbles, in the brain. They are so small that typical brain scans cannot detect them or the damage they cause.

When these bubbles collapse, the surrounding tissue is damaged, most likely by compromising the blood-brain barrier, which helps make sure molecules don’t end up in the wrong places in the brain.

Cho and his team received a $1.24 million grant from the Office of Naval Research Warfighter Performance Department.

“We know the symptoms are there, but they’re not being addressed because we don’t know the cause,” Cho said in a news release. “If we can see that the blood-brain barrier is damaged, we can perhaps begin contemplating clinical strategies to treat the cause.”

Some symptoms of this brain damage can be memory loss, headaches or even elements of post-traumatic stress.

Cho will use tissue-engineered models or brain tissue and the blood-brain barrier to see whether a collapsed microcavitation indeed causes leakage in the blood-brain barrier and what role shock waves play.

To understand what a cavitation can do to a brain, look a boat propeller. Pockmarks on the blade are the result of repeated cavitations collapsing. Cavitations happen when rapid changes of pressure occur.

Just one microcavitation, so small that scientists can only study it with an imaging device that can take 1 million frames a second, when collapsed, might cause significant damage.

Any type of traumatic brain injury can cause a microcavitation, and about 1.5 million Americans suffer from a traumatic brain injury.

This research wouldn’t just help scientists and doctors understand a shock wave’s effect on the brain. It will also create a baseline for what microcavitations can do to the brain and how to find them.

It will bring new light to post-traumatic stress studies and concussion studies, two other areas that need more awareness and understanding.

The impact of Cho and his team’s work will make waves. It will also bring more recognition to UTA’s Bioengineering Department, all needed and well deserved.