Researcher Uses Computer Models to Get Inside Heads of TBI Victims

January 13, 2020 By Fariss Samarrai, Fariss Samarrai,

Each year about 3 million Americans suffer from traumatic brain injury – concussions and severe brain damage resulting from sporting activities, car crashes, falls, work-related accidents and explosions. These injuries can range from micro-concussions – small jolts to the head (usually involving sports) that can, when accumulated, cause brain dysfunction over time – to sudden, extreme impacts that result in debilitating injury or death.

Though traumatic brain injury is fairly common, doctors and brain researchers cannot know exactly what happens inside the head at the moment the skull is struck, whether suddenly and violently or subtly but repeatedly over the course of years.

But Matthew Panzer, a mechanical and biomedical engineering professor at the University of Virginia and deputy director of its Center for Applied Biomechanics, is developing ways to get inside the head, so to speak, and visualize what happens when the brain is strained, twisted, stretched and sheared as it’s hit from different angles, or when it suddenly undergoes a change in directional motion.

He is considered a world leader in the field of computational modeling of the brain’s response to stresses, and his many published papers are frequently cited by other researchers in the field.

Working with colleagues in UVA’s schools of Engineering and Medicine, Panzer uses the computational models his team has developed – and continue to refine – to mimic real-life events that cause brain injury.

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Matthew Panzer speaking to a student in a classroom
Matthew Panzer is developing ways to visualize what happens when the brain is hit from different angles or when it suddenly undergoes a change in directional motion.

“Through interdisciplinary studies, we’re learning that head injury and brain injury is not really a singular event, but rather a process through a series of connected events that can vary greatly depending on how hard the hit, and the angle it comes from,” Panzer said. “We’re characterizing the kinds of injuries that can happen in many scenarios, and at different ages, and predicting the resulting effects.”

The research informs the development of safety devices and features, such as football helmets, automobile restraint systems and military equipment.

As an example, the Center for Applied Biomechanics conducts tests to rate the safety of different football helmet designs for the National Football League. Engineers use a range of sensors and computer models to determine the effects on the brain from impacts at different helmet locations. They have demonstrated that hits to the side of the head, which cause the head to suddenly rotate, cause more brain deformity and potentially more severe injury than impacts to the front of the head.

Laptops and research equipment setup for testing
UVA’s Center for Applied Biomechanics conducts research funded by the NFL, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Department of Defense, auto manufacturers and other agencies.

“This type of information can help equipment engineers create better designs to mitigate the effects of these kinds of impacts,” Panzer said.

The center’s research, which applies engineering principles to studies of how the human body reacts under impact, is funded by diverse agencies and organizations – the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Department of Defense, auto manufacturers, the NFL, the UVA Brain Institute and others.

“The brain is complicated – it’s not like a bone, where you can clearly see with an X-ray the location of the break, the problems it’s causing, and come up with the solution for how to reset it,” Panzer said. “With brain injury, there often is no observable injury with medical images, but the brain functions might be altered and the patient is symptomatic, sometimes immediately, sometimes over time. Treating it also can be difficult. We’re learning that the brain’s structure and its functionality are not necessarily the same thing, that there are different types of concussions, and maybe different treatments for each.”

To create his dynamic computer models of how the brain physically responds to collisions and sudden directional shifts, Panzer uses data from tests on human volunteers, cadavers, lab animals and crash test dummies. Sensors and brain scanners capture the results, and that information is incorporated into the computations that become the models for the brain undergoing real-world stresses and impacts.

Panzer’s team has learned, for example, that when the skull is impacted, the brain does not bounce around in the head as some had believed, but rather jiggles, “like a shaken bowl of Jell-O.”

“Our models allow us to effectively visualize the brain as it deforms upon an impact to the skull,” Panzer said. “We can see, in effect, the areas of stress, the deformations that occur, and the likely regions where injury and dysfunction can occur. Our colleagues in the Medical School can use this to better understand injury and recovery times, improve diagnosis, and to help us further improve our models.

“We’re getting a strong grasp on how brain deformation results in clinical problems. The end goal is to understand the conditions that initialize these functional problems, so we can prevent or reduce injury with better safety equipment.”

Media Contact

Fariss Samarrai

University News Associate Office of University Communications