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Grants boost brain research at Pitt with the goal of reversing impact of injuries

Saturday, January 04, 2003

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Brain injury experts at the University of Pittsburgh have won federal grants totaling almost $4 million to sponsor innovative projects in rehabilitation research, officials announced yesterday.

With a model of a human brain at his side, Dr. Ross Zafonte of UPMC Health System announced yesterday that the University of Pittsburgh has received two grants to fund research into brain injuries. "We are one of only four centers in the country that have both of these grants," Zafonte said. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Those projects include a computerized electric wheelchair that can compensate for minimal hand strength, erratic hand movements or other impairments that now limit the ability of some brain injury survivors to move independently.

A $1.8 million grant from the National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research will create the university's Brain Injury Model System, which will develop and evaluate a unique customized wheelchair, a virtual reality and robotics strategy to help patients relearn movement, and an educational Web site.

A second grant of $2.1 million was awarded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. It makes the university part of the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinical Trial Network, which is a cooperative research effort between five centers across the country.

"We are one of only four centers in the country that have both of these grants," said principal investigator Dr. Ross Zafonte, vice president of clinical rehabilitation services for UPMC Health System.

Rory Cooper, chairman of the university's Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology, is working on the assistive devices in the Brain Injury Model System.

He demonstrated an electric wheelchair, more than six years in the making, that promises to increase independence of patients with brain injury or severe neurological disease. The chair has a specialized joystick that responds to even very light pressure, so that users with minimal hand strength can still use it. The computerized controls can be further customized to the abilities of the user and filtering programs can eliminate the effect of hand tremors or other unintentional movement.

Currently, some people with severe disabilities require an assistant to push their manual wheelchairs. The experimental system, which combines the novel joystick controls and sophisticated head gear apparatus with artificial intelligence, could compensate for myriad deficits to allow greater independence. And the joystick could be hooked up to a desktop computer, eliminating the need for a conventional mouse, Cooper said.

Patient tests of the wheelchair could begin by the middle of the year.

With colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University, Cooper's group is also working on virtual reality and robotics systems to assist brain injured patients in regaining motion, function and strength and is developing a Web site for patients.

Many times, Cooper said, patients aren't aware of what devices exist or what adaptive strategies could increase their independence.

The clinical trial network funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant will help doctors learn more about brain injury drug therapies. The University of Washington, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Virginia Commonwealth University and Columbia University are also members.

"What we will do is systematically go through the different centers' projects and do them as a group, so we can recruit more patients" to complete studies more quickly, explained Dr. Amy Wagner, assistant professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation.

According to Dr. Gary Goldberg, director of brain injury program at UPMC Rehabilitation Hospital, at least 5.3 million Americans live with a disability caused by traumatic brain injury. In severe cases, patients may suffer problems with memory, judgment, planning and language. Some experience mood disturbances, such as depression or anxiety, or undergo personality changes.

"It's estimated that $56 billion in direct and indirect costs are spent in this country because of these injuries," he said.

Goldberg added that medical advances have led to higher survival rates in the past two decades, but many survivors have "significant disability and residual difficulties that require attention and continued care."


Anita Srikameswaran can be reached at anitas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3858.

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