Richmond Professors Use Bio-Math to Help Soldiers With Brain Injuries 

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Remember calculus?

Great news: It’s relevant.

Isaac Newton developed the discipline in the 17th century to help explain pesky phenomena like gravity, and historically it’s been the purview of physicists seeking to explain motion and change.

But in recent years, mathematicians have applied calculus to biological and medical data — a brave new world of bio-math.

“We have some understanding of cells and evolution,” says Joanna Wares, an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Richmond. “But there’s little we know on a math level about what medicine and treatments do to your body.”

If the possibilities of a new mathematics field don’t excite your inner nerd, consider the implications for military members this Veterans Day: Bio-math is at the center of a study by researchers at UR and Virginia Commonwealth University to help diagnose and measure brain injuries in soldiers.

Like football players, soldiers are vulnerable to multiple concussions, mild to moderate and sustained in a short amount of time.

“A higher percentage of [concussion] patients with persistent symptoms like sleep issues, dizziness, ear ringing are from combat situations,” says Dr. David Cifu, principal investigator of the study and chairman of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the VCU School of Medicine.

But determining whether or at what level a soldier subjected to a bomb blast has sustained a brain injury is difficult. In its first year, the three-year, $12 million study is collecting medical data from 1,200 service members — and for years after, if funding continues.

As doctors, “we look at balance, sleep cycle, eye tracking,” Cifu says. “VCU developed a sophisticated headgear that tracks your eyes. And we got an immense field of data.” There are also data on EEG brain wave tests, heart monitor readings, blood biomarkers, MRIs, X-rays and the patients’ personal histories.

And that’s where calculus comes in: Researchers in UR’s department of math and computer science are using mathematical modeling to analyze this vast amount of data.

“Concussions are a shearing force, when the brain has accelerated too quickly,” Wares says. “We’re finding other ways to get at the connectivity problem. It’s very subtle in mild brain injuries.”

Pentagon guidelines call for troops near bomb blasts to be removed from combat for 24 hours and checked for brain injuries, and that’s exactly the sort of assessment researchers hope to create.

“The pie-in-the sky outcome is a diagnostic index that uses a variety of quantitative approaches,” says Kathy Hoke, a professor of mathematics at UR. “You would put in someone’s data and out would pop ‘concussion’ or not.”

For researchers, the study means helping service members stay healthy and veterans get proper care.

“As mathematicians,” Wares says, “this is the closest we can come to doing that.”

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