Penn Bioengineers Awarded DoD Grant to Study the Neuronal Effects of Blasts, Tackles and Collisions

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | | 215-898-6460 October 14, 2010

PHILADELPHIA –- A collaboration of biologists and bioengineers, including researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, has received a $6.25 million, 5-year grant from the Department of Defense to study the effects of blast waves on the neural circuitry of the brain.

Modern high-speed projectile weapons, car collisions and even football all have a component of blast injury.  Explosions and collision instigate a series of forces that can damage body tissue.  They include an initial blast wave of air, the collision of the blast wave with any protective system plus the body’s tissues and the transmission of strong stress waves into the tissues.

Once completed, the research should show when blast events such as improvised explosive devices, IEDs, can disrupt the wiring or strength of connections among brain circuits and if these alterations in the brain circuits will affect behaviors such as learning and memory.  The research may point out new directions for improving outcome in soldiers and civilians after blast-induced traumatic brain injury, or TBI.

The study, “Blast Induced Thresholds of Neuronal Networks,” or BITNeT, will seek to identify the precise mechanisms that disrupt neural circuits following a traumatic event.  Studying the effect of a blast, particularly over time, will provide researchers with better estimates for the recovery time needed to regain normal physiological function, as well as assist security and police in determining safe zones around potential blast areas, inform athletics and the automobile industry, improve armor and helmet designs and point the way toward potential therapeutics for improving recovery following mild blast traumatic brain injury.

““These quantitative criteria will provide critical information absolutely fundamental to the design of effective helmets and armor to mitigate the blast threat,” said David F. Meaney, the Solomon R. Pollack Professor and chair of bioengineering at Penn.

Blast waves of any type can cause persistent damage to the nervous system; however, there is an incomplete understanding of how these waves transmit through the brain at the meso- and micro-scale.

Concussions, for example, are macroscale trauma.  But given the complex neural networks within the brain, it is possible that percussive blasts cause even small changes in neural connection strength or the number of connections, leading to significant neurological impairment.  Ultimately, science and medicine know little about the threshold for damage to synapses, soft tissue and circuits within the brain.

This Multi University Research Initiative grant will provide funding to researchers to build a model of the human brain and skull, subjecting the model to blast field conditions.

The study will be led by Meaney, of Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, along with Ted Abel, the Brush Family Professor of Biology in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences.  Penn faculty will be joined by Barclay Morrison of Columbia University and Dale Bass of Duke University.

Additional information is available at