Researchers Study Biology of Traumatic Brain Injuries

Harvard researchers have recently uncovered some of the biological mechanisms underlying the traumatic brain injuries caused by bomb explosions, suggesting future avenues for improved treatment and therapy.

Led by Kevin Kit Parker, a bioengineering and applied physics professor at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the scientists showed that the overactivity of proteins called integrins, which can be caused by the physical force of an explosion, plays a key role in TBI by causing networks of neurons to disconnect from each other.

Preliminary studies in the lab have also shown that the administration of drugs that inhibit integrin overactivity immediately after a blast can help to protect neural tissue—a finding that the scientists hope will translate into clinically-used therapies in the near future, according to researcher Borna E. Dabiri ’07.

Parker, a combat veteran in Afghanistan, said he initially worked in cardiac research but was motivated to redirect his research in order to help his fellow soldiers and friends. The current lack of understanding about TBIs makes the recovery process difficult for many victims, he said.

“The idea that these guys are getting wounded like this and what their future health might look like kills me,” Parker said. “I can’t look at these guys and not do something.”

In the past, the physical symptoms of soldiers following explosions were commonly attributed to psychological trauma, according to Christian R. Macedonia, the medical science advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But Dabiri said that recent studies have shown that the impact of the blast can also cause physical brain damage, with later complications such as early-onset Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

“It dawned on me that the blast concussions were not just from people being frightened,” said Macedonia, who felt first-hand the physical aftereffects of a blast while serving as a combat surgeon in Iraq.

“I wasn’t fearful,” he said about his own explosion experience. “But I also was not right in the head, and my ears continued to ring for days.”

Parker and Macedonia are currently part of the Gray Team, a group of scientist-veterans that routinely take two-week long missions to Afghanistan. Based on information and testimonials from U.S. military personnel on the ground, the scientists give recommendations relating to TBI injury and care.

Though Parker’s work on TBIs now receives support from the government, he said he is grateful to Harvard for providing the necessary funding for the initial stages of the research, which was considered a very new field at the time.

“I am very appreciative of Harvard’s financial position,” Parker said. “It empowered me to get this work started while we waited for the government to get organized.”