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Pitt Team Receives $5.4 Million in DoD Grants For High-Definition Scans of Soldiers with Brain Injuries

PITTSBURGH, Nov. 9, 2012 – Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have received two grants totaling $5.4 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to evaluate whether a new imaging tool called high definition fiber tracking (HDFT) can accurately diagnose traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in wounded warriors, officials announced at a scientific symposium today at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum that introduced the University’s Center for Military Medicine Research (CMMR) to the community.
The CMMR and the HDFT project are examples of the commitment that the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and 100 medical schools around the country have made to meet the health needs of the military and their families, said Arthur S. Levine, M.D., senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and dean.
“In January 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama announced a collaboration with the nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals as part of the Joining Forces initiative, which underscores the need for new TBI interventions to enrich medical education to better serve our military, veterans and their families, and to improve their health,” Dr. Levine noted. “We were particularly honored that during her speech, the First Lady noted the potential of high definition fiber tracking in leading to breakthroughs in the diagnosis of TBI, which could begin with this new study.”
Conventional CT and MRI scans often are unable to reveal damage to the brain’s network of neural cables, or fiber tracts, that could cause significant cognitive or physical impairments after TBI, explained principal investigator David Okonkwo, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of neurological surgery, clinical director of the Brain Trauma Research Center, and director of the Neurotrauma Program at UPMC and the Pitt School of Medicine.
“Our preliminary research indicates that HDFT can reveal breaks in brain wiring, just like X-rays show us broken bones,” Dr. Okonkwo said. “That’s a big step forward because knowing where the damage lies will allow us to better plan our treatments and give TBI patients more accurate predictions of the long-term prognosis.”
In the new study, a team led by Dr. Okonkwo and Walter Schneider, Ph.D., professor and senior scientist at Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center, will perform HDFT scans at UPMC or Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on 240 soldiers who recently have sustained a TBI and in 60 uninjured volunteers. The researchers hope to show that HDFT is able to identify fiber damage and correlate it with neurologic symptoms, including post-concussion syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“This is one of the many projects underway at Pitt that focus attention on the medical needs of wounded warriors,” said Col. (ret.) Ronald K. Poropatich, a physician and CMMR executive director. “The newly established CMMR aims to support these efforts and develop new opportunities to advance military medicine, which has a track record of leading to innovative treatments for civilians.”
In August, Pennsylvania deployed its 30,000th soldier to Iraq or Afghanistan, noted Dr. Poropatich, a Pittsburgh native who is an expert in telemedicine. He added that soldiers, veterans and their families should receive not only high-quality, accessible medical and surgical care, but also the best knowledge and innovation that research can provide.
“Last month, the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute was designated a Model System of Care for Traumatic Brain Injury by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, and studies to assess regenerative medical approaches to wound healing are underway,” said Rocky Tuan, Ph.D., CMMR founding director, executive vice chair for research, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, and associate director, McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Proposals for other military medicine research projects are in the pipeline.
To further heighten awareness about the health needs of the nation’s veterans, service members and families, and elevate the role that medical schools and teaching hospitals play in serving this community, the Association of American Medical Colleges has established Joining Forces Wellness Week. The effort will take place from November 12 to 16 and will feature a free webinar series as well as a number of activities focused on military health issues.

About the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

As one of the nation’s leading academic centers for biomedical research, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine integrates advanced technology with basic science across a broad range of disciplines in a continuous quest to harness the power of new knowledge and improve the human condition. Driven mainly by the School of Medicine and its affiliates, Pitt has ranked among the top 10 recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health since 1997. In rankings recently released by the National Science Foundation, Pitt ranked fifth among all American universities in total federal science and engineering research and development support.
Likewise, the School of Medicine is equally committed to advancing the quality and strength of its medical and graduate education programs, for which it is recognized as an innovative leader, and to training highly skilled, compassionate clinicians and creative scientists well-equipped to engage in world-class research. The School of Medicine is the academic partner of UPMC, which has collaborated with the University to raise the standard of medical excellence in Pittsburgh and to position health care as a driving force behind the region’s economy. For more information about the School of Medicine, see

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