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University of Montana researchers Sarj Patel, left, and Tom Rau, right, study blood-based biomarkers that indicated how the brain reacts following a traumatic brain injury.

Tissue samples provided by a Boston brain bank helped two University of Montana researchers identify biomarkers stemming from traumatic brain injuries that closely matched their work with animals.

The discovery gained the attention of the National Football League and General Electric, and it won UM research professors Sarj Patel and Tom Rau a $300,000 grant to help speed the diagnoses and treatment of TBI in athletes and members of the military.

The Head Health Challenge announced the grant last week and promised more funding for research that continues to show promise.

“It’s surprising but exciting,” said Patel. “It’s a little different from the kinds of grants we’re used to applying for. GE and the NFL want to advance both treatment and diagnosis, and understand how TBI affects the brain. They’re looking for new and exciting science.”

Brain samples provided by Boston University enabled Patel and Rau to identify biomarkers that were similar to those they’d witnessed in their research on animals.

Early efforts have shown that a traumatic brain injury changes how the brain operates. More importantly, Patel said, it also changes the level of certain proteins and ribonucleic acids, or RNAs, present in the brain after injury.

“We’re interested in how certain proteins are changing their expression in the brain following TBI,” Patel said. “It’s a signature that says something has happened.”

Whether the changes persist over time or are reversible remains a mystery. After a traumatic brain injury, behavior and cognitive changes generally disappear, leading researchers to wonder if long-term changes linger, and if they do, might they be detectable in blood samples.

“We will collect blood samples from people who have suffered from a traumatic brain injury to see if we can detect these molecules and ultimately determine how long it might take for them to return to play or service,” said Patel.

Patel and Rau have a collaborative agreement with St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula to collect blood samples from emergency room patients. They’re also asking the Department of Athletics at UM to see if athletes could be included in the study.


The project began with a small pilot grant from Main Hall. That early work helped Patel and Rau win additional funding from the Montana Neuroscience Institute and the Montana Board of Commercialization and Technology.

Rau said the big leap forward came when biomarkers found in human brain samples nearly matched those found in their past research with animals.

“That’s part of what got us the award,” Rau said. “We are far enough along with animals and with humans that we could convince them this was a worthwhile venture.”

The Head Health Challenge selected projects from biotech companies and research institutions, including UM, Johns Hopkins Medical School and the University of California.

The challenge received more than 400 research entries from 27 countries. Applications were reviewed by a panel of experts in brain research, imaging technologies and advocates for progress in brain research.

The 16 teams selected for the award received $300,000 each. The next round will reduce the 16 teams to six before awarding additional funding.

“We haven’t received many grants from the NFL in the past,” said UM President Royce Engstrom. “It’s pretty neat to be selected as one of 16 schools in the country. That whole area of brain injury research and outreach is a dynamic one that’s growing for us really rapidly.”

UM has asked the Montana Board of Regents to approve a new neuro-injury center in the College of Health Professionals and Biomedical Sciences, where Patel and Rau conduct their research. The board is expected to act upon the request at its March meeting.

“The award highlights the talent of our young investigators,” said Richard Bridges, chair of the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences. “It points to how we’ve been building momentum and critical mass in the study of traumatic brain injury and neuroscience.”

Patel said the new grant will help drive their research forward.

“It allows us to continue studying the underlying mechanisms that cause changes in the proteins and molecules we’re studying,” he said. “It gives us insight into possible intervention, where we may be able to target therapies.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at

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