Game changer: Christian Franck takes a new look at the lasting impacts of brain injuries

By Heather Huna

In the last decade, there has been a push to understand traumatic brain injuries and how impacts to the brain effect the tissue and mind long after they occur. The release of the 2015 movie “Concussion” starring Will Smith brought to light how the impacts to the head experienced by athletes during football and other contact sports can have permanent and life-threatening results.

One of the most challenging obstacles to understanding impacts and injuries to the brain is that much of the data must be collected post-mortem. Professor Christian Franck and his team from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are exploring new diagnostic tools which would allow researchers to study the degeneration of the brain due to impacts, on the cellular level, over time. Professor Franck’s research focuses on what types of forces are seen in the brain during impacts from activities such as football, and how this information can be used to create preventative measures and equipment, such as helmets, which could protect the brain from injuries which can lead to brain degeneration.

There are two parts to a traumatic brain injury. The first part is the tearing of the brain tissue which occurs during the impact. The second part is a chemical injury. The chemical release in the brain after an impact occurs over time and leads to brain degeneration.

To obtain information on how brain tissue changes after a force is applied, Franck’s research team constructed a simple cellular model for testing. Several promising findings have come from research on the model. The first is that if the forces experienced in the brain are low enough, no injury will occur. This means that if it is possible to design a helmet that prevents the forces experienced by the brain from getting too large, brain injury could be prevented. Another key finding from the team’s research is that under certain conditions that ultimately cause damage, there are no noticeable changes in the chemical and structural makeup of the brain in the first four hours. Finally, one of the team’s most promising findings is that if you can intervene within the first four hours after an impact, it may be possible to therapeutically restore the cells and reverse the damage to the brain.

Although these results are promising, Franck stressed that this research is a “work in progress.” As Franck described during his presentation on Oct. 12, 2018, as part of the Mechanics Seminar Series at UW?Madison, this data was collected using a simple model of the brain and more research needs to be done to confirm his team’s findings. However, Franck’s research shows promise for both the prevention of brain injuries and a treatment window which could enable reversal of the damage produced by an impact. If these results can be validated in a more complex model, this research could be a game changer for athletes everywhere.