PITTSBURGH (AP) — The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is one of 16 organizations receiving $300,000 each for research on better diagnosing and treating concussions, in a National Football League program sponsored by General Electric.
UPMC’s grant was among the winners of the first stage of the $20 million Head Health Challenge, announced Thursday at NFL headquarters in New York. Up to six of the groups given grants will receive an additional half a million dollars next year, if their work is deemed worthy of more study.
UPMC plans to use the money to determine if a process known as high-definition fiber tracking can be used to diagnose concussions.
The technology, developed by Walter Schneider, a Pitt professor of psychology and neurological surgery, could help doctors identify concussions and more clearly determine when an athlete is healed and can resume playing sports.
“This technology gives us the ability to see the damage so we hope to track its recovery,” Schneider said. “In the same way X-rays let us track a fracture or look at the healing process, we expect to see these broken brain cables and look at their healing.”
So far, the technology has been used to diagnose and treat more serious brain injuries, like tumors or the brains of wounded soldiers. The technology paints a picture of injured fiber tracts in the human brain, which are composed of billions of tiny neural connections, using yellow, green and purple images.
Schneider and the other UPMC researchers are hopeful that the color-coded images can be used to identify less traumatic brain injuries, like concussions. That’s important because the risk for more serious, long-term brain damage is greater if someone is re-injured before a concussion heals.
Injuries to the brain-cell network don’t typically show up on MRIs or CT scans, which are currently used to determine whether athletes have suffered concussions.
The league has been under pressure for its handling of concussions, with thousands of former players filing suit and a federal judge in Philadelphia weighing whether to approve a proposed $765 million settlement meant to compensate players who’ve suffered complications from concussions.
To determine whether Schneider’s high-definition fiber tracking can identify concussions, UPMC will study 50 athletes ages 13 to 28 within a week of them seeking treatment for head injuries.
Michael Collins, director of UPMC’s concussion program and one of the study’s principle researchers, said if the study pans out as hoped, UPMC would become the first program to use imaging technology to treat concussions.
“It doesn’t mean it’s going to work, but it’s a great place to start,” Collins said. “That’s why we do the research.”