Haojie Mao is working to understand traumatic brain injury (TBI) through collaborations with Western neuroscientists and neurobiologists. And those researchers are looking to crack the brain-injury code with help from Mao, a world-class engineer.
“When we’re wanting a better understanding of cognition and the effects trauma can have on the brain, you need engineering. When you’re talking cognition, it starts from engineering,” said the Mechanical and Materials Engineering professor who, before joining Western last summer, worked as a research scientist for the U.S. Medical Research and Material Command.
“Impact is trauma; the force that caused it, that’s engineering. That’s why I’m so interested in working with medical scientists and the folks at the Brain and Mind (Institute). The brain is so complex, but we are still very early in learning all about it. I’m coming at it with engineering.”
To help individuals deal with the effects of TBI, it is critical to understand how immediate brain biomechanics affect brain cells and networks that link to short- and long-term brain dysfunction, added Mao.
His work underlines the importance of interdisciplinary research in solving big problems.
With collaborations that already include Health Sciences, Robarts Research Institute and fellow engineers, he is developing experimental and computational methods for analyzing the biomechanical and biological responses of brain tissues to trauma. These include sports-related collisions, blast waves, automotive accidents and falls.
The computational head models developed by Mao allow researchers to visualize and quantify stresses and stretches across the entire brain – allowing for a better understanding of the causes of TBI and its links to cognitive dysfunction. The results can improve brain health with better protection, diagnostics and therapies.
“We want to see what these forces that affect the brain cells are actually doing, not just what it looks like externally,” said Mao, the Canada Research Chair in Head Mechanics. “It links to brain tissue and that links to damage. We want to reduce the load into the brain.”
Injury statistics have found the most common accident situation to be an oblique impact, such as a collision between two football players, which causes both linear and rotational acceleration.
In linear acceleration, the brain moves through space abruptly, but without a change in direction.
Brain injury from rotational acceleration takes place when unrestricted movement of the head occurs out of sync with the movement of the neck or the rest of the body, which twists the brain within the skull.
Mao said the brain is most sensitive to rotational motion, which is a better indicator of TBI than linear acceleration.
“Rotational (acceleration) stretches more and can cause more damage,” he said. “Our muscles, or our heart and lungs, they can stretch. The brain is still, so any sort of force on it is very damaging. I get a cut on my arm, it will heal. I break a bone, it will heal. The brain is very hard to repair. When we understand the mechanisms of the brain, and can diagnose earlier, we can treat earlier.”
Mao will also collect biomechanical data beyond the brain. This will help improve the accuracy of brain biomechanics and allow for a better analysis of the responses of other systems in the head, such as the eye, ear and facial bones.
His research interests also extend to safety- and injury-related topics, such as improving vehicle structures for occupant and pedestrian safety; designing safer seats for minimizing blast-induced lumbar spine injuries; understanding pediatric biomechanics; and developing better protections to reduce impact- and blast-triggered head injuries.