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McNerney Reports on TBI Research and Treatment Advancements After Visits to Virginia Commonwealth University and McGuire VA Medical Center

Apr 25, 2016
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Last week, I had the honor of touring Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and learning about the research their distinguished staff is doing to treat traumatic brain injuries (TBI). VCU is at the forefront of cutting-edge science, and has partnered with a nearby VA hospital, the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center (McGuire VA), to make sure their work can positively impact the lives of veterans who have experienced and are recovering from TBI. This partnership is fostered by the Chronic Effects of Neurotrauma Consortium (CENC), a coordinated collaboration that combines science from laboratory and clinical researchers from the VA, military, and academia in a translational program to effectively address the long-term effects of TBI, and its diagnosis and treatment.

I started the day learning about VCU’s TBI research by meeting with CENC members: Dr. David Cifu, the chair of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, COL Sidney Hinds, a former Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center National Director, and Dr. Rick Williams from RTI International. They discussed their efforts to improve TBI treatments, how taking advantage of the large availability and sharing of data has improved TBI research, and how the group sees their research effecting the future of diagnosis and treatment of TBI. The group relayed the importance of collaboration on TBI research and data sharing between the Department of Defense (DOD) and VA, and explained that a cooperative interagency relationship at a high level will help advance the understanding and treatment TBI, a signature injury of our returning veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.  They also stressed the need for longitudinal studies, to determine the effects of the injuries and treatments over decades.

I also had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Jerry Strauss, Dean of VCU’s School of Medicine. Dr. Strauss filled me in on the importance of the VCU-McGuire VA partnership and how it provides his students with amazing learning experiences and clinical opportunities.

Next, I had the great honor of meeting Dr. John Povlishock, the Chair of Anatomy & Neurobiology at VCU and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Neurotrauma. Dr. Povlishock is credited with first establishing the effects of concussion on the brain and now oversees the publication of two issues of the journal each month. He was nice enough to send me home with a few issues to display in my offices. He told me about the TBI laboratory research and clinical experiments his team is currently working on. He also explained that the information his team gets from observing mice with concussions can give us insight on how patients can be treated and recover from TBIs. I was impressed by the work that I saw in VCU’s research laboratories and was excited to learn about the high-tech machinery that is used for brain research.

The team at VCU taught me a lot about what we can expect in the future of TBI treatment and recovery solutions.  An important note that I took away from my visit at VCU is that because the brain is so complex and every brain injury is unique, all brain injuries cannot be diagnosed or treated in the same way. Effective treatment of TBI takes unique combinations of therapies, drugs, and rehabilitation techniques. Dr. Cifu was very direct on this point.

After the tour at VCU, I visited the McGuire VA and learned about their Traumatic Brain Injury Polytrauma System of Care. The McGuire VA focuses on comprehensive inpatient rehabilitation, an approach that not only focuses on rehabilitation, but also on the transitional process for vets with TBI, to help with their transition and recovery.

McGuire VA Director John Brandecker, Dr. Ajit Pai, Chief of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at McGuire VA, and other dedicated members of the polytrauma team gave me a tour of their Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center and explained how their Polytrauma Transitional Rehabilitation program affects the lives of veterans recovering from TBIs. Veterans currently in the transitional program undergo a sufficient duration of treatment while living in a group-style facility that offers a wide range of rehabilitation treatments to address the physical, emotional, and basic life skills (such as cooking and doing laundry) that may have been impacted by their injuries. This promotes much better outcomes for achieving independence at the end of their treatment cycle.  

While touring the facilities and observing the program in action, I had the opportunity to meet a few of the patients at the facility. I was honored to meet such positive, strong, and resilient young men, who have sacrificed so much for our great country.  And impressively, they each had great things to say about the McGuire VA and the care and treatment they’ve gotten.

The visits to VCU and the McGuire VA were great opportunities to see firsthand the first-rate research and treatment of TBIs. I would like to thank everyone at VCU and the McGuire VA for their hospitality and for all they do to help our veterans suffering from TBI.