While most of the attention on concussions focuses on highlight reel knockout hits, Dr. Joseph Maldjian has assembled a team to look into how head impacts affect the brains of youth and high school football players.
“We are looking at all the repeated impacts that do not result in concussion, where the players seem fine. We are asking whether those impacts have an effect on the brain. This work represents some of the only National Institutes of Health-funded studies in the country looking specifically at these issues in youth,” said Dr. Maldjian, Principal Investigator on two NIH studies examining all the head impacts players experience.
Research by Dr. Maldjian and his team with the Advanced Neuroscience Imaging Research Lab already has revealed changes in the brains of players after just one season of hits.
This valuable research will now be aided by the new Lee R. and Charlene B. Raymond Distinguished Chair in Brain Research, established by a $1 million endowment through the Southwestern Medical Foundation. Dr. Maldjian, Chief of the Neuroradiology Division and Professor of Radiology, will be its first holder.
“His efforts have already contributed to important discoveries, so we are confident that he will continue building on this rich foundation at UT Southwestern and with our colleagues at the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute,” said Dr. Neil Rofsky, Chair of Radiology and a Professor in the Advanced Imaging Research Center. “Joe is driven by a desire to improve the lives of people who have experienced not only brain injury, but also degenerative disease.”
Dr. Maldjian credited the strong collaborative environment at UT Southwestern that embraces clinical innovation and research advancement and the Medical Center’s use of the most advanced technology.
“We currently have several efforts using machine learning and artificial intelligence looking toward implementing neuroimaging diagnostics that can enable new or better clinical measures from our imaging studies,” he said. “The philanthropic support from the Raymond Distinguished Chair will help strengthen some of these new advanced neuroimaging approaches for both research questions and clinical translation.”
Dr. Maldjian’s approach involves embedding sensors in the helmets of players to wirelessly collect information on all the impacts players experience during practices and games.
“We also obtain extensive preseason and postseason advanced MRI data and perform detailed cognitive testing,” he said. “A novel aspect of our data acquisition includes magnetoencephalography, or MEG, which allows us to measure the tiny magnetic fields from the brain associated with neural electrical activity at millisecond time resolution. We can map all these signals back to brain space, and we now want to expand these studies to nonhelmeted sports such as girls’ soccer with the use of new mouthguard-based sensor technologies.”
Cross-departmental teams on campus are adding further value. A group of traumatic brain injury researchers in Neurological Surgery, Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation is working with investigators in Neuroradiology to leverage the ConTex statewide concussion registry, which documents and tracks concussion incidence, examines injury characteristics, and identifies risk factors among school-aged athletes. A joint effort of the O’Donnell Brain Institute and the University Interscholastic League, the registry is funded through UTSW’s Texas Institute for Brain Injury and Repair, which was established with $7.5 million in annual funding from the Texas Legislature to explore the full spectrum of brain injuries, from strokes to spinal cord injuries.
“We hope to design a comprehensive study of concussion in the youth and young adult population that we believe can serve as a model for concussion diagnostics and treatment evaluations,” Dr. Maldjian said.