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Local Researchers Land $16.5 Million To Study Traumatic Brain Injuries

Every year, nearly half a million children 14 and younger visit the emergency room for traumatic brain injury in the United States.

Two Pittsburgh researchers have been selected by the National Institutes of Health to lead a $16.5 million study evaluating treatments for pediatric TBI.

The five-year international study is looking to provide evidence to standardize clinical practices and provide guidelines that would improve the lives of children with TBI.

Dr. Michael Bell of The Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, along with Stephen Wisniewski of Pitt Public Health, will lead the study. Bell will coordinate patient enrollment and clinical activities, while Wisniewski will focus on data collection and statistical analysis.

The physicians will be testing the effectiveness of six different treatments that comprise the standard care plan for children with TBI, including nutrition, glucose support and prophylactic hyperventilation — a theory that suggests quick, deep breathing reduces brain swelling.

Bell, director of Pediatric Neurocritical Care and Neurotrauma, hopes his research will provide evidence for a universal treatment.

“Kids in Pittsburgh get fed differently than kids in Seattle after traumatic brain injury, and lots of folks think that the feeding regimen might have an effect on outcomes,” Bell said. “There’s not enough evidence to compel investigators at these places to standardize their care because everyone thinks that their standard is best.”

Researchers will study 1,000 children up to 18 years old from more than 36 locations in the United States and overseas. Children with severe TBI will be given the standard of care offered by their hospital in the United States and Europe. Test results will be compared at six months and one year after an injury occurs.

The study is expected to more than double existing evidence-based treatment recommendations for children with TBI.

Bell said the study will find the most effective treatments for severely injured children.

“The field has been working for decades to try to find the best therapies and established therapies that can be spread across all different institutions in order to get kids better and our grant is the latest effort to try to do that in a comprehensive way,” Bell said.

TBI is a leading cause of death and disability among children and it is estimated that each year 1.5 million Americans sustain a TBI, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The leading causes of TBI include falls, accounting for 35.2 percent of injuries, and motor vehicle accidents at 17.3 percent. Falls cause half of TBIs among children 14 and younger.

The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."