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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

NIH grant supports new research on traumatic brain injury

$300,000 for three-year study

Jan. 10, 2011, by Judy Holmes

The last thing 24-year-old Aaron Bowman remembers about that starry night last June was seeing a deer in the headlights of his motorcycle and hearing the sounds of crunching metal and the scraping of his helmet on the pavement as he slid some 150 feet down the road.  A few days later, the Castle Creek, N.Y., resident couldn’t remember most of the past 23 years of his life and he had trouble recognizing anyone outside of his immediate family, including some of his best friends.

Diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI), Bowman was referred to the Concussion Management Program and CNY Sports Concussion Center at SUNY Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse. Program director Brian Rieger asked Bowman to participate in a new study of TBI being conducted by Syracuse University researcher Kathy Vander Werff with Rieger’s collaboration.

The three-year study, funded by a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, will assess how TBI affects the central auditory system. Vander Werff is an associate professor and auditory researcher in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences. Rieger is also chief psychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at SUNY Upstate. The researchers hope the study will lead to better ways to diagnose and treat TBI-related auditory problems.

In addition to memory and vision problems, Bowman has difficulty focusing on what people say to him, especially when there is a lot of background noise. He also has difficulty remembering spoken lists and complex instructions.

“Our study is looking at how TBI affects different parts of the central auditory system within the brain, and how damage to these areas may be related to the symptoms people, like Aaron, experience,” Vander Werff says. “We are also interested in how these auditory problems may be related to other post-TBI symptoms, including cognitive and memory impairments, stress, anxiety, and depression.”

In addition to processing sound, the central auditory system helps the brain make sense of what people hear.  While TBI can result in significant central auditory problems, it is often difficult to diagnose due to a lack of obvious hearing loss or radiological evidence of a problem.

“TBI has been getting increased attention over the past several years, particularly in sports and the military,” Rieger says.  “However, there are still many unanswered questions about the effects of one or more concussions on athletes, soldiers, students, and others.  Research like this can add to our understanding of how brain injury might affect people and how to help them.”

Vander Werff and Rieger plan to recruit some 40 participants diagnosed with mild to moderate TBI for the study. The TBI participants will be matched with a control group of people who have no history of TBI, who will also undergo testing. The testing is performed in Vander Werff’s Auditory Electrophysiology Lab on SU’s South Campus, which is equipped with some of the latest technologies for evaluating brain activity in response to sound. 

In addition to providing a detailed case history, study participants go through a series of auditory and neurological tests, including a comprehensive hearing assessment; tests that evaluate attention, memory, and thinking skills; and tests that record neural activity in the brain and auditory system in response to speech sounds both in quiet and when background noise is present. The neural activity tests are performed using a stretchy cap with 64 tiny electrodes that is placed on the scalp. The electrodes are connected to specialized instruments that record the brain activity.

Bowman, who is still recovering from his injuries, is one of the first people to complete all of the testing. “If this study helps others get better answers than I received to the problems they have after a concussion, it would be really great,” Bowman says. “I learned a lot from participating in the study and I am very glad to be a part of it.”