Prof. Barclay Morrison Lecture Underscores Advances in Brain Injury Research

Sep 23 2015 | By Jesse Adams | Photo: Susan Cook

When someone suffers a traumatic brain injury (TBI), the damage is often just beginning. Over hours and days, the primary injury can set off a cascade of secondary injuries as the body activates various cellular and metabolic processes ultimately responsible for the majority of cell death. In this delay lies an opportunity for researchers to prevent that additional damage and preserve living brain tissue.

Morrison's lecture was part of the Stavros Niarchos Brain Insight Lecture series hosted by Columbia's Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute.

That’s where Barclay Morrison comes in. Morrison, associate professor of biomedical engineering and head of Columbia Engineering’s Neurotrauma and Repair Laboratory, is a leading expert in the field and has developed novel treatments for TBIs and their aftermath. He discussed his work in a Sept. 17 talk held at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Black Culture in Harlem. The discussion was part of the Stavros Niarchos Brain Insight Lecture series hosted by Columbia’s  Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute.

“Traumatic brain injuries are really like taking a hammer to a computer,” said Morrison. “A lot of bad things happen at the same time.”

With reference to soldiers’ head wounds on the battlefield, athletes’ injuries, motor vehicle riders’ accidents, and his own concussion in the third grade, Morrison detailed how the brain responds to traumatic injuries, likening what happens after an impact or blast to the behavior of violently shaken gelatin and raw meat. He also brought up the curious case of Phineas Gage, who miraculously survived an 1848 railroad accident that pierced his brain with a 3.5 foot tamping iron. Morrison’s lecture highlighted the research being done in mechanical injury of the central nervous system that encompasses developing universal tolerance criteria for brain tissue, investigating the role of the cytoskeleton in injury, applying stem cell repair strategies, and developing silicon circuitry and electrode design for neural engineering.

“You give something to an engineer, and the first thing they’ll want to do is pull it apart,” Morrison said, describing his research quantifying how brain cells struggle and fail under stretching and stress. “If we can predict cell death and dysfunction, engineers devising safety equipment will have a benchmark around which to design and evaluate.”

Morrison recently led the first study to determine the underlying mechanisms promoting post-injury functional recovery of the blood-brain barrier, a semipermeable restrictive layer that maintains the brain’s microenvironment and protects it from toxins. His team discovered that, in in vitro models at least, pharmaceutical therapies with steroid hormones known as glucocorticoids showed great promise for restoring the barrier and treating TBI’s.

“Right now, if you get a brain injury there’s little we can do,” Morrison noted. “If you’ve heard nothing else tonight, remember to wear your seatbelt and your helmet.”

Opening remarks were made by Thomas Jessell, professor of molecular chemistry and biophysics and of neuroscience at the Columbia University Medical Center, and co-director of the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. The Stavros Niarchos Brain Insight Lecture series is devoted to enhancing public understanding of the biology of the mind and the complexity of human behavior.