Children are uniquely vulnerable to traumatic brain injury. Dr. Linda Noble-Haeusslein is working to identify therapeutic targets to help children recover after a brain injury
By Susan Kirtz, MPH
Managing Editor, Texas Health Journal
Director of Special Projects, Center for Health Communication
The University of Texas at Austin
When Dr. Linda Noble-Haeusslein’s daughter Laurel was young, she was playing in the laundry room when she climbed onto the dryer, slipped, and fell head first onto the linoleum floor. For the next 24 hours, Noble-Haeusslein “watched her like a hawk,” looking for signs of a concussion. Laurel who ended up being just fine, was in good hands with her mother.
Noble-Haeusslein, a neurobiologist who holds a joint appointment in the Department of Psychology and in the Department of Neurology at Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin, works in the field of neurotrauma, with a specific focus in pediatric traumatic brain injuries. Her aim is to develop targeted therapeutics that support recovery without interfering with healthy brain development.
She refers to herself as a translational biologist, carefully mapping how traumatic brain injury (TBI) adversely affects the “neighborhood” surrounding the damaged tissue. Noble-Haeusslein uses these intricate maps to identify therapeutic targets to help children recover after a brain injury. Her primary objective is to develop therapeutics tailored specifically to protect the developing brain while allowing it to continue to develop properly.
“I’m trying to understand what makes the young brain very vulnerable to traumatic brain injury,” said Noble-Haeusslein, “and in the long run to develop therapeutics that can be used to reduce the initial injury and to support recovery.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite falls such as the one Laurel experienced as the leading cause of traumatic brain injuries (TBI). Falls account for nearly half of all TBI-related emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States, and disproportionately affect people in the youngest and oldest age groups.
Over the years, scientists have established that brain development likely persists until at least the mid-20s. How the brain recovers after injury is, in part, related to its level of maturation.
“When my children were young, I was very influenced by reading about the way you manage children who have had TBI,” said Noble-Haeusslein. “The primary objective at that time was to help them survive. What do you do after that? There’s nothing in place. No one really had a plan of action for the kids, because they assumed that whatever worked for the adults would work for the kids, too. And that isn’t the case. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.”
Her research relies on cellular, molecular and behavioral tools to identify key mechanisms underlying early cell injury that impair recovery processes. The long-term aim of her research is to contribute to drug development or repurposing an existing drug to improve the lives of children who have suffered TBI.
Noble-Haeusslein and her team are also dedicated to preventing TBI among youth. They led a workshop at this year’s Explore UT event called, Brains, Bumps and Bruises: Why a Helmet is Your Best Friend. Participants were invited to “learn how your brain works as you take an imaginary trip on your bicycle or skateboard, hold a jiggly brain in your hands, feel the bone that is there to protect it, and take a close look at a helmet to see why it is your best friend.”
While Noble-Haeusslein is dedicated to her work in understanding and developing therapeutics for TBI, she describes prevention as “the best solution.” Noble-Haeusslein and her team just wrapped up a large National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grant, examining the role that inflammation plays after injury to the developing brain.
Along with her trusty sidekick Ruby, a sweet brown and black shepherd mix who often accompanies her to the office, Noble-Haeusslein is committed to improving the lives of children who started out with a bump in the road - or on the head.
For Noble-Haeusslein, the benchmark for success is high - providing the best care for children who have experienced TBI, ensuring optimal recovery and a long and fulfilling life.