Even the mildest form of a traumatic brain injury, better known as a concussion, can deal permanent, irreparable damage. Now, an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania is using mathematical modeling to better understand the mechanisms at play in this kind of injury, with an eye toward protecting the brain from its long-term consequences.
Their recent findings, published in the Biophysical Journal, shed new light on the mechanical properties of a critical brain protein and its role in the elasticity of axons, the long, tendril-like part of brain cells. This protein, known as tau, helps explain the apparent contradiction this elasticity presents. If axons are so stretchy, why do they break under the strain of a traumatic brain injury?
Tau's own elastic properties reveal why rapid impacts deal permanent damage to structures within axons, when applying the same force more slowly causes them to safely stretch. This understanding can now be used to make computer models of the brain more realistic and potentially can be applied toward tau-related diseases, such as Alzheimer's.
The team consists of Vivek Shenoy, professor of materials science and engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Hossein Ahmadzadeh, a member of Shenoy's lab, and Douglas Smith, professor of neurosurgery in Penn's Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Penn Center for Brain Injury and Repair.
"One of the main things you see in the brains of patients who have died because of a TBI is swellings along the axons," Shenoy said. "Inside axons are microtubules, which act like tracks for transporting molecular cargo along the axon. When they break, there's an interruption in the flow of this cargo and it starts to accumulate, which is why you get these swellings."
Smith had previously studied the mechanical properties of axons as a whole. By patterning axons in culture in parallel
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University of Pennsylvania