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Computation combats concussion damage

Speed read
  • Complexity of brain interactions requires analysis only available through high-performance computer simulation
  • Computer models and helmet sensors offer real-time impact information to players, coaches, and doctors
  • HPC also playing integral role in creation of living nerve bundles

As football season rolls on, fans across the country look forward every weekend to touchdowns, tackles, and tailgating. But recent news about football-induced brain injuries is casting a pall on the sport.

One researcher in the Pennsylvania State University Institute for CyberScience is working to reduce the risk of these injuries — and to reverse the damage they cause — through the power of high-performance computing (HPC).

<strong>Touchdown!</strong> Football-related head injuries now have a computational assist, thanks to researchers at PSU. Courtesy Reuben Kraft; Institute for CyberScience.

“These simulations are so important because it's very hard to investigate brain injury experimentally — we can't just hit people on the head and see what happens,” says Reuben Kraft, head of the computational biomechanics group at Pennsylvania State University. “Computer simulation is the only way to investigate injuries of this nature.”

High-impact simulations

To create accurate brain models, Kraft's team combines many different equations, each one describing a physical property of one of the kinds of matter in and around the brain.

“We have equations for how everything behaves — skin, skull, the fluid between the brain and the skull, different kinds of brain tissue, even brain fibers,” says Kraft. “We combine these with equations that account for the geometry of the brain.”

Kraft’s team then uses the brain models to simulate injuries, determining the specific effects of different kinds of head trauma by changing variables such as the force and angle of impact. To ensure the simulations are accurate, they compare results against MRIs of actual injured athletes.

Computer simulation is the only way to investigate injuries of this nature. ~Reuben Kraft

Kraft is combining his simulations with biomechanical sensors worn by athletes to provide real-time diagnoses of brain injuries. When a football player takes a hit to the head, the sensors collect data about the force and location of the impact and send it to a HPC system. The brain models then simulate the results of the hit to determine which parts of the brain are likely to be injured and the severity of the damage.

This information is generated in moments, and can be sent to coaches, doctors, or parents to make sure the player stops playing and gets necessary treatment.

These diagnoses are crucial because in many sports programs coaches rely on players to self-report if they have suffered a concussion. A player who has sustained a big hit might not be aware of the damage caused, or might avoid self-reporting to stay in the game.

Kraft aims to partner with an education company that promotes awareness of the risks of brain injury to high school athletes. By combining a curriculum about brain injury for students and coaches with tools for diagnosing brain damage, Kraft hopes to reduce sports-related brain injuries and make athletes safer.

Hitting close to home

Kraft's interest in preventing and reversing brain damage began around 2009, when he was working at the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL). There, his research focused on soldiers who had been injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When he left ARL, he expanded his focus to also include sports injuries. The growing controversy over concussions in football made this research area relevant — and it is also a topic in which he has also has a personal stake.

“I was an athlete myself in high school,” says Kraft. “I was runner-up in the Maryland state championships in wrestling, and I was an All-American lacrosse player, too. I was never officially diagnosed with a concussion, but I probably had them.”

His experiences with potential head injuries have motivated Kraft not just to understand the mechanics of the brain, but also to make these insights useful to the general public.

Growing new nerves

Kraft is also applying his expertise to counteract the effects of brain injury. He is collaborating on a project to build artificial living nerve bundles called Micro-Tissue Engineered Neural Networks, or micro-TENNs. These micro-TENNs could be used to replace damaged cells in the brain.

“This is a big deal,” says Kraft. “We’re talking about restoring lost brain function, not just for reversing concussion-related damage but potentially for treating strokes and brain diseases.”<strong>Reuben Kraft </strong> brings his experience as an All-American athlete and researcher with the US Army to mitigate the effects of brain injuries. Courtesy Reuben Kraft; Institute for CyberScience.

By modeling the properties of different micro-TENN materials and designs, Kraft predicts which designs will grow rapidly and carry electronic signals effectively. These predictions are then tested in the lab by his collaborator Kacy Cullen at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kraft hopes that the computational framework his group is developing will save time, as the designers will not need to test designs which are unlikely to be effective.

The same techniques I use for simulating brain damage can also be used for designing new materials — from stronger ceramics and glass to brain prosthetics. ~Reuben Kraft

“I want to push our technology to a place where most people can access and use it,” says Kraft. “I think over the next 10 years, you’ll see brain enhancements and tools for measuring brain function become a much more common part of people’s lives.”

Wherever the field of biomechanics goes, Kraft will be at the cutting edge of it, applying his computational expertise and drive to improve the lives of the people around him.

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