Unlocking the mysteries of Conrad’s brain
Contact: Will Sansom, 210-567-2579
SAN ANTONIO (Nov. 12, 2012) — Liz Tullis cradles her son, Conrad, and lays him gently down, stroking his feet for reassurance. Venturing to the UT Health Science Center San Antonio at night, into a room with a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, is out of the ordinary for any kid, and it is important that Conrad be relaxed, even asleep, before the studies begin.
The deficits that Conrad, 10, suffered in a swimming pool nine years ago are of interest to experts at the School of Medicine’s Research Imaging Institute, where a $100,000 grant from the Kronkosky Foundation supports a study of children with anoxic brain injury. These injuries, classified into several types, are caused by inadequate oxygen reaching the brain.
“By studying the brain during its resting state, we want to see which functions are preserved and intact in children who have survived drowning events,” said postdoctoral fellow Janessa Manning, Ph.D. The information could assist caregivers in management and treatment decisions and provide a more targeted approach to therapy.
Improving quality of life
Although the injury left him unable to speak, Conrad often signals his caregivers and teachers that he understands what is happening around him. Perhaps the networks that still work in his brain can be maximized to improve his quality of life, his mother hopes. She and her husband, Matt, are passionate in their desire to help Conrad, as well as other children and parents in the same situation. The website www.conradsmiles.com is devoted to this cause.
One in every 5 drowning victims in the U.S. is under the age of 14, and children ages 1-4 have the highest drowning rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For every child who dies from drowning, another five are treated in emergency departments for nonfatal conditions such as anoxic brain injury, according to the CDC.
Seeking healthy children and those with brain injuries
Manning and Peter T. Fox, M.D., a professor in the School of Medicine and the founding director of the Research Imaging Institute, want to also scan children who are not as severely impacted as Conrad, who has diffuse anoxic injury, Dr. Fox said. “The duration of cardiac arrest, which deprives the brain of oxygen, is the determining factor in how affected a child is,” he said. “We also want to look at kids who have had this happen and have done well afterward.”
The Research Imaging Institute needs a minimum of nine children with anoxic brain injury for the study, along with nine healthy children to serve as age-matched controls. Families will receive MRI studies of their children for free, Dr. Fox said. Confidentiality is maintained. To inquire about eligibility for the study, call (210) 567-8150.
“With this particular condition, the information is very scattered,” Liz Tullis said. “I was asking, ‘What can I do?’ I’m not leaving any stone unturned.”
Filling in the voids
In a set of scans on a computer screen, Dr. Fox and Manning point out spaces in ventricles of the brain. These are abnormal for a child, whose brain typically fills out the skull. Manning points out that, for the brain-injured, anatomy doesn’t change but there is yet room to improve life skills. “It’s not a change in what you have but in how you’re using it,” she said.
After the MRI scans, a second series called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) shows where the anoxic damage is. The Research Imaging Institute is using the same techniques to scan children with autism, Dr. Fox said.
The DTI shows damage in deep structures of Conrad’s brain that control motor skills.
Love keeps the family going. This is evidenced by Matt and Liz’s faith and devotion, by four super-involved grandparents, by attentive little brother Garrett who is 7, by compassionate teachers, and by a fellow student named Sam who is Conrad’s self-proclaimed best friend. “One of the things you can’t discount is love,” Tullis said. “That boy can’t spend a minute without someone stroking him.”
The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, one of the country’s leading health sciences universities, ranks in the top 3 percent of all institutions worldwide receiving federal funding. Research and other sponsored program activity totaled $231 million in fiscal year 2011. The university’s schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have produced more than 28,000 graduates. The $739.6 million operating budget supports eight campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. For more information on the many ways “We make lives better®,” visit www.uthscsa.edu.
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