Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
University of New Mexico researchers this week received a five-year, $11.6 million federal grant to find new ways to help people recover from strokes and traumatic brain injuries that devastate thousands of New Mexicans each year.
Much of the work will focus on a promising therapy that uses mild electrical stimulation to help the brain rebuild the connections needed to recover thinking and motor skills, the program’s lead researcher said Friday.
The therapy, called transcranial direct current stimulation, has shown promise as a way of helping the brain to rewire itself, said Bill Shuttleworth, director of UNM’s Brain and Behavioral Health Institute, which received the grant.
“The brain is actually very plastic,” said Shuttleworth, a professor in UNM’s department of neurosciences. “It has an ability to rewire itself in a pretty remarkable way.
“But there may be ways we can boost the brain’s ability to become more plastic and recover those circuits,” he said.
The grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences also will pay for research by Jason Weick, a UNM professor of neurosciences, who studies how stem cells can be used to regenerate brain function.
Severe disruptions caused by strokes and violent injuries, such as vehicle accidents, too often leave victims with disabilities that hinder their ability to speak, hold a job or maintain relationships, Shuttleworth said.
“This is something that could happen to anybody,” he said. “It happens to lots of New Mexicans.”
Traumatic brain injuries in New Mexico resulted in more than 14,000 emergency room visits, 1,165 hospitalizations and 384 deaths in 2012, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.
Strokes caused 696 deaths in New Mexico in 2013 and left many more with disabilities, the agency said.
The grant will pay for both research and clinical programs that treat New Mexicans struggling with the effects of acquired brain injuries.
The research grant will pay for the work of five UNM School of Medicine faculty members in the departments of neurology, neurosurgery, neurosciences, and psychiatry and behavioral science.
“We hope within 10 years to be a national center recognized for this work,” Shuttleworth said.