How do you test how brain cells react to impact? Researchers say the answer is to tap them with the world’s tiniest hammers. The information gained could help patients facing traumatic brain injury and other neurological diseases.

Every year, 1.7 million Americans are treated for a traumatic brain injury. Nearly 80% of those people are treated and release from the emergency room. Another 52,000 brain injuries are fatal. Many TBI cases are the result of sudden impacts including falls, sports injuries, and auto accidents.

Despite the prevalence of brain injuries, there is a lot researchers still don’t know about how brain cells react to impact. While there has been significant progress providing brain injury patients new rehabilitation options and treatments, less is known about the actual mechanical results of impact.

Using MicroHammers to Test Brain Cells

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, are trying to fill that gap.

“Mechanical forces have been shown to impact cells a lot,” said Kimberly Turner from UC Santa Barbara.

Cells, especially stem cells, can be impacted by their environment. Cues can cause them to differentiate into one or another type of cell, which can jump start healing of brain injuries. So the team has combined mechanical engineering, biophysics, neuroscience and bioengineering to see how brain cells respond to different types of mechanical force.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the federal Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Using the money, the team has developed the μHammer (“microHammer”): a cellular-scale machine that will tap, poke, squeeze, and strike individual neural progenitors, neurons, and brain cells.

The study is modeled after cell-sorting technology currently being used for medical diagnostics and immunotherapies. It flows individual brain cells through and subjects each one to a variety of physical forces. Researchers will record and study how the different physical prods affect the cells.

MicroHammers Could Give Valuable Brain Injury Information

The researchers are hopeful that their test will provide a better understanding of neural conditions from Alzheimers to TBI.

“This project will enable precision measurements of the physical, chemical and biological changes that occur when cells are subjected to mechanical loading, ranging from small perturbations to high-force, high-speed impacts,” said Megan Valentine from UC Santa Barbara.

“Our technology will provide significantly higher forces and faster impact cycles than have previously been possible, and by building these tools onto microfluidic devices, we can leverage a host of other on-chip diagnostics and imaging tools and can collect the cells after testing for longer-term studies,” said Valentine.

This research gives scientists a better insight into how brain injury works. It could lead to better diagnosis, treatment, and even prevention of life-affecting head injuries.

David Christensen is a brain injury attorney at Christensen Law, in Southfield, Michigan. He helps the victims of brain injuries from auto accidents collect damages from insurance providers and at-fault drivers. If you have suffered a TBI, contact Christensen Law for a free consultation.

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