Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Penn Researchers Model a Key Breaking Point Involved in Traumatic Brain Injury


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?    

The protein tau acts as "cross ties" for the microtuble "train tracks" that run the length of the axon.

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 tracts, Smith and his colleagues could apply a stretch to the axons at different forces and speeds and measure how they responded.

“What we saw is that with slow loading rates, axons can stretch up to at least 100 percent with no signs of damage,” Smith said. “But at faster rates, axons start displaying the same swellings you see in the TBI patients. This process occurs even with relatively short stretch at fast rates. So the rate at which stretch is applied is the important component, such as occurs during rapid movement of the brain and stretching of axons due to head impact from a fall, assault or automobile crash.”

This observation still did not explain to researchers why microtubules, the stiffest part of the axon, were the parts that were breaking. To solve that puzzle, the researchers had to delve even deeper into their structure.

Microtubules are closely packed together inside axons, somewhat like a bundle of straws. Binding the individual straws together is the protein tau. Other biophysical modelers had previously accounted for the geometry and elastic properties of the axon during a stretching injury based on Smith’s work but did not have good data for representing tau’s role in the overall behavior of the system when it is loaded with stress over different lengths of time. 

“You need to know the elastic properties of tau,” Shenoy said, “because when you load the microtubules with stress, you load the tau as well. How these two parts distribute the stress between them is going to have major impact on the system as a whole.”

Shenoy and his colleagues had a sense of tau’s elastic properties but did not have hard numbers until a 2011 experiment from a Swiss and German research team physically stretched out lengths of tau by plucking it with the tip of an atomic force microscope.

“This experiment demonstrated that tau is viscoelastic,” Shenoy said. “Like Silly Putty, when you add stress to it slowly, it stretches a lot. But if you add stress to it rapidly, like in an impact, it breaks.”

This behavior is because the strands of tau protein are coiled up and bonded to themselves in different places. Pulled slowly, those bonds can come undone, lengthening the strand without breaking it. 

“The damage in traumatic brain injury occurs when the microtubules stretch but the tau doesn’t, as they can’t stretch as far,” Shenoy said. “If you're in a situation where the tau doesn't stretch, such as what happens in fast strain rates, then all the strain will transfer to the microtubules and cause them to break.”

With a comprehensive model of the tau-microtubule system, the researchers were able to boil down the outcome of rapid stress loading to equations with only a handful of variables. This mathematical understanding allowed the researchers to produce a phase diagram that shows the dividing line between strain rates that leave permanent damage versus safe and reversible loading and unloading of stress.

“Predicting what kind of impacts will cause these strain rates is still a complicated problem,” Shenoy said. “I might be able to measure the force of the impact when it hits someone’s head, but that force then has to make its way down to the axons, which depends on a lot of different things.

“You need a multiscale model, and our work will be an input to those models on the smallest scale.”

In the longer term, knowing the parameters that lead to irreversible damage could lead to better understanding of brain injuries and diseases and to new preventive measures. It may even be possible to design drugs that alter microtubule stability and elasticity of axons in traumatic brain injury; Smith’s group has demonstrated that treatment with the microtubule-stabilizing drug taxol reduced the extent of axon swellings and degeneration after stretch injury.    

“Intriguingly, it may be no coincidence that tau is also the same protein that forms neurofibrillary tangles, one of the hallmark brain pathologies of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is linked to a history of concussions and higher levels of TBI,” said Smith. “Uncovering the role of tau at the time of trauma may provide insight into how it is involved in long-term degenerative processes.”

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense.

Evan Lerner | EurekAlert!
Further information:

Further reports about: Brain TBI Traumatic axons break damage elastic elasticity injury microtubules properties strain

More articles from Health and Medicine:

nachricht Penn study stops vision loss in late-stage canine X-linked retinitis pigmentosa
13.10.2015 | University of Pennsylvania

nachricht Breast cancer drug beats superbug
13.10.2015 | University of California - San Diego

All articles from Health and Medicine >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Secure data transfer thanks to a single photon

Physicists of TU Berlin and mathematicians of MATHEON are so successful that even the prestigious journal “Nature Communications” reported on their project.

Security in data transfer is an important issue, and not only since the NSA scandal. Sometimes, however, the need for speed conflicts to a certain degree with...

Im Focus: A Light Touch May Help Animals and Robots Move on Sand and Snow

Having a light touch can make a hefty difference in how well animals and robots move across challenging granular surfaces such as snow, sand and leaf litter. Research reported October 9 in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics shows how the design of appendages – whether legs or wheels – affects the ability of both robots and animals to cross weak and flowing surfaces.

Using an air fluidized bed trackway filled with poppy seeds or glass spheres, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology systematically varied the...

Im Focus: Reliable in-line inspections of high-strength automotive body parts within seconds

Nondestructive material testing (NDT) is a fast and effective way to analyze the quality of a product during the manufacturing process. Because defective materials can lead to malfunctioning finished products, NDT is an essential quality assurance measure, especially in the manufacture of safety-critical components such as automotive B-pillars. NDT examines the quality without damaging the component or modifying the surface of the material. At this year's Blechexpo trade fair in Stuttgart, Fraunhofer IZFP will have an exhibit that demonstrates the nondestructive testing of high-strength automotive body parts using 3MA. The measurement results are available in a matter of seconds.

To minimize vehicle weight and fuel consumption while providing the highest level of crash safety, automotive bodies are reinforced with elements made from...

Im Focus: Kick-off for a new era of precision astronomy

The MICADO camera, a first light instrument for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), has entered a new phase in the project: by agreeing to a Memorandum of Understanding, the partners in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Italy, have all confirmed their participation. Following this milestone, the project's transition into its preliminary design phase was approved at a kick-off meeting held in Vienna. Two weeks earlier, on September 18, the consortium and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which is building the telescope, have signed the corresponding collaboration agreement.

As the first dedicated camera for the E-ELT, MICADO will equip the giant telescope with a capability for diffraction-limited imaging at near-infrared...

Im Focus: Locusts at the wheel: University of Graz investigates collision detector inspired by insect eyes

Self-driving cars will be on our streets in the foreseeable future. In Graz, research is currently dedicated to an innovative driver assistance system that takes over control if there is a danger of collision. It was nature that inspired Dr Manfred Hartbauer from the Institute of Zoology at the University of Graz: in dangerous traffic situations, migratory locusts react around ten times faster than humans. Working together with an interdisciplinary team, Hartbauer is investigating an affordable collision detector that is equipped with artificial locust eyes and can recognise potential crashes in time, during both day and night.

Inspired by insects

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

EHFG 2015: Securing healthcare and sustainably strengthening healthcare systems

01.10.2015 | Event News

Conference in Brussels: Tracking and Tracing the Smallest Marine Life Forms

30.09.2015 | Event News

World Alzheimer`s Day – Professor Willnow: Clearer Insights into the Development of the Disease

17.09.2015 | Event News

Latest News

Smart clothing, mini-eyes, and a virtual twin – Artificial Intelligence at ICT 2015

13.10.2015 | Trade Fair News

Listening to the Extragalactic Radio

13.10.2015 | Physics and Astronomy

Penn study stops vision loss in late-stage canine X-linked retinitis pigmentosa

13.10.2015 | Health and Medicine

More VideoLinks >>>