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UPDATE: UW scientists research concussions using flies

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MADISON (WKOW) -- A team of UW-Madison researchers may be one step closer to finding better ways to combat concussions and they're doing it by studying the brains of fruit flies.

Genetics professor Barry Ganetzky and regenerative biology professor David Wassarman's recent work studying traumatic brain injury (TBI) in fruit flies was just published this week in the National Academy of Sciences journal. 

The researchers are looking at how different fruit flies respond in different ways to TBI-- or concussions-- just like people do. They created a device to test their theories. It's a spring that slams a vial of 60 fruit flies onto a wooden board.

Test after test found some of the flies would become immobilized and dazed, just like people do when they get a concussion, but other flies would still move around as usual.

"Being able to document in a really compelling way, that the key features of traumatic brain injury, the way its defined in humans and the various manifestations are replicated in our fly model," says Ganetzky. "We showed that flies that survive the initial injury, as they age will manifest neurodegeneration."

The pair chose fruit flies because they'd already been working with them on other types of research for years. Plus, they say flies and humans share similar genes so they're comparable. Although flies have a much shorter life span so researchers can see long term consequences of injury at just three weeks.

Wassarman says this study opens up new doors for future work.

"If you take 100 humans and give them TBI, they're all going to respond differently because of their genetic makeup and flies do the same thing," Wassarman says. "Now we can go back to each of those flies and figure out what those particular genes were that made a fly more susceptible to an outcome or more resistant to an outcome."

That information could then down the road translate to better concussion treatment and diagnosis in humans. Ganetzky and Wassarman predict if they're able to get a better handle on the long-term effects of TBI on the brain, they might be able to predict whether someone is more susceptible to injury based on their genes.

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Driven by the suicides of NFL football players and effects of concussions, a UW geneticist may have found the first steps to a solution, using a spring-loaded fly swatter.

It sounds like science fiction, but Barry Ganetzky with the University of Wisconsin Madison says the brains of fruit flies have been used before to analyze more complex human neurological issues.

They can be raised by the thousands and also live brief lives, allowing researchers to easily consider the "later in life" impacts that can be difficult to study.

Using a sharp strike to a vial of fruit flies, Ganetzky says he and his colleagues have discovered the first glimpses of the genetic underpinnings of susceptibility to brain injuries and how that links to traumatic brain injuries in humans.

Ganetzky has been studying fruit flies for more than three decades, inspired to research concussions after the suicide of Junior Seau, a former San Diego Chargers linebacker.  Ganetzky was concerned that unlike with diabetes and high blood pressure, there is poor understanding of the medical causes of concussions.

"Why does a blow to the head cause epilepsy? Or how does it lead down the road to neurodegeneration?" he said in a news release.  "Nobody has answers to those questions, in part, because it's really hard to study in humans."

Alongside David Wassarman, a UW professor of cell and regenerative biology, Ganetzky is changing that.  Their research was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Now we have a system where we can look at the variables that are the inputs into TBI and determine the relative contributions of each to the pathological outcomes," Wassarman said.  "That's the real power of the flies."

As with humans, they found few flies die from the immediate impact.  However, later the treated flies show many of the same physical consequences as humans who sustain concussions or other TBIs, including temporary incapacitation, loss of coordination and activation of the innate immune response in the short term, followed by neurodegeneration and sometimes an early death.

The research also found age seems to play an important role. Older flies are more susceptible than younger ones to the effects of the impact.

"What we really want is to understand the immediate and long term consequences in cellular and molecular terms," says Ganetzky. "From that understanding we can proceed in a more directed way to diagnostics and therapeutics."

One of the key things they have already identified is the crucial role genetics plays in determining the outcome of an injury, revealed by the high degree of variability seen among different strains of flies.

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