General Electric (GE) and the National Football League (NFL) recently donated $300,000 to University of California, Santa Barbara’s Brain Imaging Center as part of the Head Health Challenge, a joint initiative by GE and the NFL to sponsor research related to head injury-related health issues. The Head Health Challenge’s chief goal is to improve the safety of athletes, military members and anyone who experiences mild traumatic brain injury.

The study will examine how to effectively treat mild traumatic brain injury, such as a sports concussion or vehicular crash, which can result in brief unconsciousness or amnesia.

Professor and director of the Brain Imaging Center, Scott Grafton, who was selected to participate in the study, said that the research will incorporate the development and use of imaging methods known collectively as biomarking. A biomarker is a tool capable of measuring physiological or molecular processes and is used as a standard in clinical health.

“We use state-of-the-art MRI imaging to measure the bundles within the white matter of the brain that carry information between different brain regions,” Grafton said. “It is thought that trauma can shear or tear these bundles.”

The Head Health Challenge was started because over the course of the present NFL season, a total of 11 players — five during 2013, six in 2014 — have sustained concussions, some even suffering more than one.

Grafton and fifteen of the round-one winners will each receive a $300,000 award to advance their respective research efforts. They were selected from more than 400 entries from 27 countries.

According to Grafton, health issues may not appear until long after players have retired, making early detection substantially more critical.

“Most people get better,” Grafton said. “But one in 10 do not, and they usually have a normal MRI scan. We want to improve the MRI so it can detect abnormalities in these people.”

In recent years, researchers and medical professionals found that repeated concussions can lead to a neurological condition known as “chronic progressive traumatic encephalography,” with symptoms often including behavioral and personality changes, memory disturbances and speech and gait abnormalities.

In addition to this, Grafton notes that the current research can identify and address symptoms of depression, loss of concentration, poor word-finding and speech and fatigue.

“The brain’s wiring is a very complex, three-dimensional criss-cross of bundles,” Grafton said. “Imagine a very large pot of cooked spaghetti, and your job being to decide if there are the normal number of noodles and that they are all oriented correctly.”

Matthew Cieslak, a graduate student in the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department at UCSB, is spearheading the GE-NFL challenge project at UCSB and created the software package being used in the research. Grafton said that the Brain Imaging Center identifies algorithms intended to locate which exact brain cables have been damaged.

“Our software takes each tract and follows it to its ends — this gets repeated until we have a comprehensive map of all the connections. With this, we can compare it to other people,” Grafton said.

The recent project also ties into Grafton’s broader goal to elucidate the cognitive architecture that underlies action representation, or determining how people organize movement into goal-directed action. By mapping brain wiring, researchers can better understand the brain networks that support complex, goal-oriented behavior.

Unfortunately, Grafton will not be attending the football event this Sunday.

“[We] did not win skybox seats at the Super Bowl,” Grafton said.
A version of this story appeared on page 7 of Wednesday, January 29, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.