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WVU psychologists receive NIH award to seek cures for chronic traumatic brain injuries

With more than 2.8 million occurring annually, traumatic brain injuries are one of the most pressing challenges facing the medical community. 

Cole Vonder Haar
Cole Vonder Haar

Survivors of TBI often experience chronic psychiatric symptoms such as increased risky decision-making and impulsivity, yet there are not treatments available. 

Researchers at West Virginia University are working to find solutions to help these patients improve their everyday quality of life.

Cole Vonder Haar, an assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience in the WVU Department of Psychology, has received a five-year, $989,210 award from the National Institutes of Health to investigate potential treatments for psychiatric deficits arising from chronic TBI.

While most research is focused on the immediate effects of TBI and preventing further damage, Vonder Haar and his team aspire to address long-term effects, including behavioral changes in decision-making, impulsivity and attention span.  

“Even if we were to come up with a catch-all cure for acute TBI tomorrow, it would still leave many people dealing with these really long-term, chronic consequences,” Vonder Haar said. “What we are investigating is the potential to treat patients when their symptoms do not go away.”

Vonder Haar and his research team, including WVU Undergraduate Neuroscience Program Coordinator Kris Martens and University of Pittsburgh Associate Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Amy Wagner, are pursuing three potential ways of addressing the chronic, long-term consequences of TBI.

The first approach will consider patients’ sensitivities to the environment, identifying environmental factors which could be engaged in rehabilitative treatment. The second is pharmacological, testing the effects of therapeutic drugs. The third is a neuromodulation approach, which involves indirect stimulation to the brain through the scalp.  

These aims focus on dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in learning, behavior and other complex cognitive processes. Because of reductions in dopamine in TBI patients, these changes may alter the effectiveness of rehabilitative efforts and therapeutic drugs.

  “We hope to learn a lot about what that damage causes, how that translates to these functional impairments and how these treatments might be able to address them,” Vonder Haar said.

The five-year study will begin in June.

“It should surprise no one that an institution like WVU that assisted in the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy would be able to recruit a scientist like Dr. Vonder Haar who studies the long-term effects of traumatic brain injuries,” said Kevin Larkin, chair of the Department of Psychology. “Based on the knowledge generated by this project, his team’s work will assist in the development of novel and effective approaches for rehabilitating behavioral changes experienced by patients with traumatic brain injuries.”