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Associate Professor Detlef Heck Receives $418,000 Grant for Research on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury

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A $418,000 grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke will allow Dr. Detlef Heck (center), pictured with Dr. Anton Reiner (left) and Dr. Bob Moore, to explore treatment options for mild traumatic brain injury.

Mild traumatic brain injury is a common occurrence that can happen in many types of activities – from leisure sports to military combat. It can cause emotional and cognitive deficits, such as depression and fearfulness, which can last for a short period of time, but often last months and sometimes years. There currently is no cure, in part because what exactly happens to the brain after a traumatic event is poorly understood. However, this may soon change, thanks to a new study being conducted by Detlef Heck, PhD, and his research team.

An associate professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology in the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), Dr. Heck has received a grant totaling $418,000 from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health, to study in greater detail which areas of the brain are affected and whether their inability to synchronize and communicate can explain the psychological consequences of traumatic brain injury.

The award, which will be distributed over two years, will be used to support a project titled, “Effects of Traumatic Brain Injury on Temporal Dynamics of Brain Activity and Learning.”

The research will use a new approach to studying mild traumatic brain injury that Dr. Heck developed working with Anton Reiner, PhD, professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology; Yu Liu, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology; Scott Heldt, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology; and Bob Moore, PhD, professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UTHSC. It involves measuring how well different areas of the brain communicate with each other.

The brain constantly generates rhythmic electrical activity that can be measured. The rhythms of two areas in the brain become synchronized when they work together on the same problem, such as learning or analyzing a fearful stimulus. Previous research conducted by Dr. Liu shows that after traumatic injury, certain areas may no longer be properly synchronized. In particular, it was noted that the loss of synchrony in a mouse model after mild traumatic brain injury was prominent in areas of the brain that regulate mood and affect, especially in mice showing depression and fearfulness. The same approach has also been successful in an Alzheimer’s project the researchers are conducting.

Dr. Moore has developed a drug that acts on specific receptors (cannabinoid type 2) in the brain without having an effect on mood or cognition. He and Dr. Reiner have already shown that one of Dr. Moore’s drugs can prevent some aspects of brain damage and behavioral effects from traumatic brain injury in mice. In the newly funded studies, the research team will be able to determine if this drug can also bring brain synchronization back to normal after mild traumatic brain injury.

“This project is a great example of how interdisciplinary and interdepartmental collaborations can bring exciting new perspectives to biomedical science,” said Dr. Heck. “Working on this project is particularly rewarding, as it may contribute to the development of improved diagnostic tools and a potential treatment for mild traumatic brain disorder.”

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke is dedicated to research and disseminating knowledge centered on the brain and nervous system in efforts to reduce neurological disease. For more information, visit www.ninds.nih.gov.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.