Houston Gets $33 million to Study Brain Injuries

Houston is the recipient of a $33 million grant from the Department of Defense. The money goes to a consortium of medical organizations. As Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports, they're charged with studying causes and possible cures for mild brain injuries.

This is one of the largest government grants to study brain injuries. The Department of Defense announced the $33 million award this week.

The money will allow researchers from the UT Health Science Center, UTMB, Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University and the Transitional Learning Center in Galveston to spend the next five years studying mild traumatic brain injuries.

Dr. Alex Valadka is a neurosurgeon and faculty member at UT Medical School. He says the easiest way to define such injuries is to think of a concussion.

"There is some sort of transient disturbance in your brain function. Now you usually don't pass out. Most people think that you have to pass out in order to be diagnosed with a concussion, but now they know that the vast majority of concussions are not associated with anyone passing out. But again they get problems with memory, orientation, know what's going on and things that can sometimes turn into severe chronic problems."

As of June of last year, 3,000 service men and women had sustained traumatic brain injuries. It's been dubbed the signature injury of the current war in the Middle East. The DoD cites the increased use of improvised explosive devices and roadside bombs as contributors.

"One of our hopes is that some of the things we learn by studying the military injuries -- the blast injuries and other injuries -- will apply to the civilian population."

It's estimated that about 1.5 million people in the U.S. suffer traumatic brain injuries every year. About 75 percent of those injuries are classified as concussions.

Valadka says doctors understand the after-effects of brain injuries. Now they need to understand what causes the problem in the first place.

"What is still a mystery is exactly what's going on in the brain that makes people have these problems. Is it something with the biochemical messages in the brain? Is it the way the electrical signals travel? Is it the nerve cells themselves or is it some of the surrounding tissues?"

The DoD grant provides funding for the next five years. In addition to laboratory research, patients at Memorial Hermann, Ben Taub and the VA Medical Center will go through clinical trials.

Laurie Johnson. Houston Public Radio News.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...