Brain Injury


Mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) affects millions of people each year, from car accident victims to soldiers exposed to IED blast waves. These injuries result in a wide range of symptoms, including concussion, hemorrhage, edema, diffuse axonal injury and vasospasm. The mechanisms of mechanotransduction in TBI are currently poorly understood. We are employing a series of in vitro assays, e.g. high speed stretchers, magnetic tweezers, traction force microscopy and a blast wave bioreactor, to mimic intracranial stresses in TBI and measure their cell-level effects. We aim to elucidate the molecular mechanisms of the injury, in order to develop effective therapeutic solutions.

Neuronal Injury:

Primary Investigators: Matthew Hemphill, Borna Dabiri, Josue Goss

In order to study the mechanisms of mechanotransduction following TBI, we developed a high speed stretcher model which mimics the sudden mechanical stimulus associated with injury. We aim to understand how cells respond to a rapid onset of stress or strain and how this response may initiate the pathological cascade which ultimately leads to TBI. We are currently subjecting populations of neurons cultured on flexible silicon elastomer substrates to a rapid onset stimulus delivered by the high speed stretcher. We identify injured neurons in vitro by distinct morphological alterations which are similar to those associated with diffuse axonal injury (DAI) observed following TBI in vivo. We have recently found that certain cell adhesion structures through which forces are delivered to the neuron may influence the onset of injury.

A   B Stretcher_Example_Neurons.jpg
Figure: In vitro model of TBI in a population of neurons

A:   Movie of high speed stretcher
B:   Example of neurons subjected to stretch (red arrows indicate morphology changes consistent with DAI in vivo

In order to further elucidate the cellular mechanisms underlying neuronal injury, we employ a technique called Magnetic Tweezers to deliver a local mechanical stimulus to specific regions of the neuron. This technique consists of using an electromagnet to pull on small magnetic beads which are bound to the neuron. By coating the beads with various compounds, we can control the cellular structures through which forces are delivered to the neuron. We have recently found that when we deliver forces through beads coated with fibronectin (FN), an extracellular matrix protein which has binding sites for specific integrin receptors, the extent of injury is much greater than when beads are coated with a substance that does not specifically bind integrins. These results are consistent with the high speed stretcher experiments and suggest that integrin mediated mechanical injury may be a possible explanation of neuronal injury following TBI.

A   Magnetic_Tweezer_Setup.jpg B
Figure: In vitro model of TBI in a single neuron

A:   Magnetic tweezer experimental setup
B:   Movie of neuron subjected to bead pull (red dot indicates location of bound bead)

Vascular Injury:

Primary Investigators: Patrick Alford, Ph.D; Sam Felton

Vasospasm of the cerebrovasculature can occur following TBI, especially blast-induced TBI, and is a potentially lethal dysfunction. It is characterized by a chronic vascular hypercontraction followed by cell proliferation, matrix remodeling, and arterial occlusion. While the role of chronically elevated luminal pressures is well established in arterial thickening, the response to rapid, acute pressure increases is not. Therefore, we developed a technique to study this response using the high speed stretcher and vascular smooth muscle MTFs (see the Tissue Engineering section for more on MTFs). We found that when an engineered arterial lamellae was subjected to a single rapid stretch, a strain dependent cellular response was initiated which affected the overall tissue function. We measured changes in vascular contractility and linked these with alterations in expression of contractile phenotypic markers, suggesting that a single mechanical injury may facilitate vascular smooth muscle phenotypic switching which could potentially account for the onset of cerebral vasospasm following TBI.

A   Vascular_MTF_Schematic.jpg B
Figure: In vitro model of TBI in the vasculature

A: Engineered arterial lamellae are subjected to a single high speed stretch
B: Time lapse movie of induced vascular construct contraction
Grp_photo_Jan 2014_305W_230H

What's New

Farewell Jack! June 16th, 2017

The DBG would like to wish Jack Zhou all the best as he leaves us for his next adventure – Medical School. Congratulations Jack!

The DBG welcomes the Orientation and Reach-Back Training class of the U.S. Army May 22nd, 2017

The DBG had the pleasure of hosting the Orientation and Reach-Back Training (ORBT) training class of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) Field Assistance in Science and Technology (FAST) program on May 17, 2017. ORBT is a multi-week mission overview program for senior-level Army officers, non-commissioned officers and Department of the Army civilians on the mechanisms for identifying and resolving technology capability gaps for units in their area of operation. The class visit to Professor (Lieutenant Colonel, Reserves) Parker’s Lab is their only visit to a Lab outside the Department of Defense.

The class met with DBG veterans and attended presentations on Stronger, Tougher, and Lighter Soldier Protection Systems; Nanofiber Scaffolds for Wound Healing/Dressings; Traumatic Brain Injury – Understanding Disease Mechanisms; Fibrous Scaffolds for Tissue Engineered Foods; Cells as Engineering Materials – the Cyborg Ray Project; Cuttlefish Inspired Camouflage; and our unique program for embedding Artists-In- Residence in the Lab.

Guests included members from the U.S. Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command (RDECOM); U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC); U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Army Research Laboratory; and RDECOM Research, Development and Engineering Centers.

Pictured below are (clockwise from bottom left): DBG Artist-in- Residence Karaghen Hudson (Harvard Class of 2018); Ms. Valerie Carney (ERDC); Dr. Aimee Poda (ERDC); Dr. (Colonel, Reserves) Steve Hart (RDECOM); Veteran and Program Coordinator John Laursen (Army Retired); Dr. Jerry Ballard (ERDC); Mr. Nathan Frantz (US Army Corps of Engineers); Visiting Scholar and Brigadier General Michael D. Phillips (USA Retired); Dr. Samantha Chambers RDECOM Science Advisor to the XVIII Airborne Corps; and Lieutenant Colonel Jovanna Nelson.

Congratulations to Stephanie Dauth, Ben Maoz, & Sean Sheehy on the cover of the Journal of Neurophysiology May 11th, 2017

Congratulations to our Brain Team for getting the cover of this month’s Journal of Neurophysiology “Neurons derived from different brain regions are inherently different in vitro: A novel multiregional brain-on-a-chip

Close-up image of axons that
have been grown over a 1-mm gap on a microcontact printed PLL/laminin lines connecting the different brain regions

Robotic Stingray wins Gold Medal at Edison Awards! April 25th, 2017

Congratulations to Professor Kit Parker and Sung-Jin Park, Ph.D. who received a gold medal in the engineering category at the Edison Awards for their work on the cyborg stingray.  The Edison Awards honor excellence in new product and service development, marketing, human-centered design and innovation.


Photo courtesy of Michael Rosnach


Welcome Dr. Cera and Dr. Lee! April 3rd, 2017

The DBG would like to extend a warm welcome to our new postdoctoral fellows, Luca Cera & Keel Yong Lee. Luca comes to us from Berlin, German, where he recently completed his Ph.D. in Chemistry under the guidance of Prof. Dr. Christoph A. Schalley. Keel Yong recently completed his Ph.D. in Prof. Kwanwoo Shin’s lab at Sogang University in Seoul, South Korea. We are looking forward to expanding on our past collaborations with him.