Vcu’s Povlishock named an outstanding scientist of 2006

Gov. Tim Kaine and the Science Museum of Virginia have honored a Virginia Commonwealth University scientist as a top contributor in science for identifying how the brain responds to injury and translating that work into promising clinical trials for brain injured patients.

John T. Povlishock, Ph.D., professor and chair of the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, and director of the Commonwealth Center for the Study of Brain Injury, is among four honorees named as Outstanding Scientists and Industrialists of 2006.

“Dr. Povlishock’s research has significantly advanced our understanding of traumatic brain injury,” said Jerome F. Strauss III, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine. “His findings have disclosed new avenues to prevent permanent damage and loss of brain function. Moreover, Dr. Povlishock’s partnership with VCU’s outstanding neurosurgeons has made possible the clinical application of laboratory findings, placing VCU at the forefront of care of individuals with these potentially devastating injuries.”

For the past 30 years, Povlishock and his research group have studied how axons respond to traumatic brain injury, or TBI, a complex condition that affects an estimated 2 million Americans each year.

When Povlishock began his work in the mid-1970s, scientists had virtually no knowledge of how traumatic injury to the head and neck directly affected the brain to cause subsequent damage and neurological dysfunction or death.

A major breakthrough in understanding TBI came when Povlishock and his team observed that damage to the brain continues past the initial moment of trauma, and can occur over the course of several hours. Previously, scientists had believed that the brain’s compromise was due to the forces of the initial impact that tore or bruised the brain and its neuronal and vascular components.

Instead, Povlishock and his team found that the traumatic episode triggers a progressive cascade of cellular events that are diffusely scattered throughout the brain. From this point, an evolution of change occurs within the brain itself causing cellular membranes of both the axons and neurons to become distorted and altered. This pathway results in focal axonal swelling and local disconnection, which can then result in permanent damage. The widespread damage to axons, which are vulnerable to traumatic injury, is a key feature of TBI.

Based on these important findings, Povlishock and his team have identified several potential interventions that target these pathological cascades and prevent the brain tissue from undergoing further damage and cell death. Some of these interventions are currently under investigation in clinical trials.

TBI, which has been characterized as a silent epidemic in the United States, is a common type of injury in soldiers in the Iraq conflict. It also results from motor vehicle accidents, falls and sports injuries. TBI, which affects primarily young people from age 18 to 24, can occur when the head is suddenly accelerated and decelerated such as in a car accident, or when the head violently strikes an object. The consequences of TBI can be lifelong.

Povlishock, also a dedicated educator and administrator, joined the faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University in 1973. He has trained more than 25 pre- and postdoctoral students. Additionally, for the past 15 years, he has served as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Neurotrauma.