NFL, GE Award UM Researchers $500,000 to Study Brain Injuries

UM researchers among six winners of Head Health Challenge, a program sponsored by GE, NFL


UM Research Assistant Professors Sarj Patel and Tom Rau recently were among six winners nationally to receive $500,000 from the Head Health Challenge I, an up-to-$10 million program sponsored by General Electric Co. and the National Football League.

The researchers’ work aims to speed diagnosis and improve treatment for mild traumatic brain injury.

The goal of the Head Health Challenge is to improve the safety of athletes, members of the military, and society overall. The winners were selected from an initial group of sixteen challenge winners who were chosen from more than 400 entries from twenty-seven countries.

As part of that initial group, UM’s research team was awarded $300,000 in 2014. For the past year, they were provided mentorship and access to GE researchers and industry leaders.

Patel and Rau conduct research in UM’s Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy. Their team, which includes senior staff scientists Diane Brooks, Eric Wohlgehagen, and Fred Rhoderick, works to discover blood-based biomarkers that indicate how the brain reacts following a traumatic brain injury. The first phases of their research have shown that TBI results in changes in how the brain operates and in levels of proteins and micro-ribonucleic acids. Identifying specific biomarkers will show how TBI changes the brain and could help doctors with diagnosis and treatment.

The initial award allowed the researchers to immediately begin identifying injury biomarkers occurring in the brains of athletes or military personnel. Patel said they collected blood samples from people who suffered from a TBI to see if they could detect the molecules and ultimately determine how long it might take for them to return to play or service.

The researchers collaborated with UM’s Department of Athletics to collect samples from UM football and soccer athletes. They worked closely with UM Head Athletic Trainer J.C. Weida to draw blood from the players.

The current $500,000 award allows for expanded testing that aims to clinically validate the research. In addition to their work on TBI, Rau and Patel plan to use samples obtained from the human brain bank at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy to take their testing one step further and look for biomarkers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive and degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

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