UTA researcher studying how TBI affects communication between neural cells

A University of Texas at Arlington researcher is studying how traumatic brain injuries (TBI) affect the ability of neural cells and surrounding cells to communicate with each other.

Ashfaq Adnan, professor of mechanical engineering, received a three-year, $475,800 grant funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR). His work is part of a multi-institutional research grant led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as part of the Physics-based Neutralization of Threats to Human Tissues and Organs, or PANTHER 3 Program. Their collaborative study focuses on the mechanism, detection and prevention of TBI. Total funding for the grant is nearly $5 million.

Neural cells have three parts-;the synapse, axon and dendrites-;and are connected to each other with glial cells, which are found next to neuronal cells and contain elements necessary for them to function.

Most of Adnan's work focuses on the axon because it bears the brunt of the mechanical forces. In this project, he will examine the interactions between glial cells and neural cells and how communication occurs between them. He and his team will work to develop a comprehensive model to understand ionic activity across the neural cells and how damage affects communication.

Brain injuries may occur when traumatic forces such as blasts or helmet-to-helmet collisions impact the head. Primary injuries are quickly apparent, but there is also the possibility of secondary injuries due to damage to cells that impedes communication from cell to cell. Secondary injuries do not occur immediately and may not be apparent for days. They evolve in different ways, often along non-mechanical pathways.

"I am excited to work with PANTHER because it gives us unique access to data and interaction with some of the most prolific researchers in the field," Adnan said. "This research addresses the important topic of traumatic brain injury, but hopefully it will turn into much more than that. What we're doing here could affect sports, bicyclists and the military. The broad focus is important because it considers nearly every scenario in which a person could experience TBI."

Members of the PANTHER 3 project team include researchers from Brown University, Iowa State University and Team Wendy, a leading developer of advanced protective equipment. Other PANTHER members include researchers from ONR, Robert Morris University, Colorado School of Mines, University of Southern California, University of California-Santa Barbara, Sandia National Laboratories, Johns Hopkins University, Trek Bicycle and Milwaukee Tool.

At the top of a researcher's rewards is his/her impact on bettering lives. Dr. Adnan's holistic approach to understanding, modeling, detecting and preventing TBI is bound to save lives for warfighters in combat, workers in construction sites, first responders in disaster areas and athletes in the field of play."

Erian Armanios, Chair, UTA's Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department

This is Adnan's fourth major grant in this area in 2021, totaling more than $4.1 million. In all, he has nearly $5 million in active grants, including:

  • a three-year, $1.5 million grant from ONR to develop 3D-printed advanced materials for "smart" protection against impact and directed energies;
  • a three-year, $1.1 million grant from ONR to study "smart" sensing elements for protective equipment in a dynamic environment;
  • a nearly $945,000 grant from ONR to study cellular- and tissue-level brain injury; and
  • an $831,000 grant from ONR to acquire high-speed camera equipment and a realistic "phantom" head model.

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