Brain injury: A public health crisis in the spotlight

On March 16, leaders will gather on Capitol Hill to commemorate National Brain Injury Awareness Day in the hopes of raising awareness and support for injuries that claim the lives of 137 people each day and impact someone in the U.S. every 13 seconds.

The recent announcement of U.S. soccer icon Brandi Chastain’s decision to donate her brain for research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and the high profile deaths of a growing number of deceased Pro Football Hall of Fame recipients have shed light on one of the most costly public health crises facing America. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the United States is the leading cause of long-term disability in children and adults younger than 35 years, costing $75 billion a year.


As many as 20 percent of U.S. service members currently serving have suffered combat-related TBI, not to mention others affected among the more than 1.6 million U.S. soldiers deployed to a combat environment since 2001. U.S. military vets and former NFL players have reported stories filled with the aftermath of brain injury, including episodes of aggression and violence, depression, drug addiction and suicide. Affected families struggle to stay together in spite of the risk of aggression, social isolation, addiction and suicide.

To date, the majority of public discussion and scientific research has focused on how the brain is damaged by TBI and how we might prevent it. While efforts to better understand how to diagnosis and prevent brain injuries are critical, there is an even more urgent need to develop treatments for survivors to improve cognition, restore behavioral control, stabilize mood and reduce the impulsivity that can lead to acts of violence, rage and addictions. The principle challenges confronting us are not only to understand how a brain gets damaged, but more critically to discover ways to improve the function of the brain parts that have escaped damage.

To understand how the brain is affected by brain disorders, scientists rely on donations of brain tissue from families that are committed to furthering the progress of scientific research. Over the past four years, our team of scientists has received hundreds of donations to build a public resource of human brain tissue for the study of neuropsychiatric disorders. In the process, we have also received donations of over one hundred brains from individuals with PTSD and TBI.

Our quest to understand the biological roots of behavioral problems is aimed at identifying new therapies for a wide range of brain disorders.  This effort has already led to an innovative therapeutic trial for a drug aimed at TBI, targeting how the brain self-regulates behavior, and particularly how it controls impulsiveness and aggressiveness. While it is much too early to know whether this will work, we hope it will encourage other researchers to seek new approaches to solving what has been until recently an insoluble problem for individuals with TBI.

For the millions of Americans suffering from the effects of TBI there is a moral and economic imperative to accelerate efforts not only to find ways to prevent brain injuries, but also to improve the lives of individuals who suffer from them. Whether you’re an athlete from America’s most popular and powerful sports league, one of our brave men and women who have served and continue to serve this country, or an individual or family member affected by TBI, there is no greater call to action around the this day of recognition than to demand increased investment in research and development of new therapies for victims. It has been 40 years since President Nixon declared war on cancer. And because of that statement, the National Cancer Institute is now spending more than $5 billion a year to support that quest.

Consider that the National Institute of Health spends a meager $87 million a year on TBI, and only a fraction of that is focused on treatment innovation. We must do better, especially for our service members. Now is the time for leadership in Washington, DC to build upon the momentum of Brain Injury Awareness Day and declare war on TBI, focused on investment in finding better therapies to improve the lives of its victims and their families.

Weinberger is director and CEO of the Lieber Institute for Brain Development at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Professor of Psychiatry, Neurology, Neuroscience and Human Genetics.   He is the former director of the Genes, Cognition and Psychosis Intramural Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health.