Have you ever had a concussion or any other head-related injury resulting in a permanent or temporary change in cognition? Concussions and other Traumatic Brain Injuries are one of the most serious public health problems in the United States. TBIs occur when a force to the head causes the brain to strike the inside of the skull resulting in swelling and sometimes even bleeding in the brain. These injuries are extremely common in falls, car accidents and many sports-related injuries.
While most TBIs are classified as “mild” and typically result in a concussion with short term symptoms like headaches, loss of coordination or vision problems, the accumulation of these mild TBIs, as well as experiencing severe head trauma, can cause permanent, more serious lasting effects that might not appear until later in life. These include neurodegeneration, cognitive problems, depression and even dementia- like symptoms. Together, TBIs in the U.S. contribute to a third of all injury-related deaths, costing the government over 75 billion dollars in productivity and health care costs. Despite this, there still remains a poor understanding of the underlying medical causes of TBIs. This is due to the fact that, until now, there has not been a dependable and replicable scientific model created to study TBIs at the biological level.
Barry Ganetzky and David Wassarman, as well as their team of researchers, at the University of Wisconsin—Madison have recently invented a simple, yet workable, mechanism to study TBIs in the common fruit fly, also known as the Drosophilia fly.
Previously, it was known Drosophilia flies become “stunned,” or paralyzed, when their glass container is given a hit. Ganetzky; professor of genetics, and Wassarman; professor of cellular and regenerative biology, used this information to create a model to test if these paralyzed flies experienced TBI-like symptoms. In order to do this, they created a device to give the container controlled hits. The device consists of a spring mounted on a cushioned mat. A vial containing the Drosophilia flies is then secured to the top of the spring. When this spring is pulled back, it flings forward hitting the mat causing flies to hit the glass with a great force. They confirmed that their model worked as the flies remained temporarily paralyzed on the bottom of the vial.
“We need to actually prove that the flies experienced a concussion with the same traumatic brain injury symptoms that humans experience,” Wassarman said on the next experiements the lab had to run.
Both scientists hypothesized the hitting of the vials gave flies concussions, and they were right. The flies displayed similar physical symptoms humans experience from TBIs including unconsciousness and loss of coordination followed by neurodegeneration.
This scientific model will now allow them to look at long-term effects of TBIs. Ganetzky modestly explained that his team’s discovery was not that complex.
“It’s all about limitation of imagination. Once we had the idea it was incredibly easy to move forward,” Ganetzky said.
Flies, unlike most animals used in research, only live for about 30 days, allowing researchers to study the development of neurodegenesis caused by TBIs. Ganetzky and Wassarman’s teams have already discovered some flies to be more susceptible to injury than others. For example, older flies were observed to be more prone to injury than younger flies.
Ganetzky and Wassarman’s model for studying TBIs has huge potential for the future of diagnosis and treatment of this costly problem. The models is already being used to target genes specifically associated with TBI’s. Once these genes are found, their team of researchers could target a protein or factor associated with the gene with drugs to alleviate the treacherous symptoms of TBIs.
Ganeztky encourages students interested in sciences to take advantage of the many opportunities that UW-Madison offers by joining one of the hundreds of research labs on campus and by attending seminars that are offered throughout the year. Ganeztky and Wassarman’s innovation shows the importance of scientific research. Even a small discovery has the potential to further the knowledge required to save many people.