While you won’t find a 250-pound linebacker lunging at the head of a rival quarterback in David Wassarman’s lab, you will find research that one day soon could make a difference in the treatment of concussions and other trauma-related brain injuries. But he’s not measuring the repetitive punches a boxer absorbs, nor is he analyzing how a helmet protects the brain during bone-crushing collisions. Instead, he’s studying flies.

Drosophila melanogaster isn’t the name of a new expansion team; it’s the Latin name for the fruit fly. And while the fly might not look a whole lot like humans, Wassarman, PhD, professor of cell and regenerative biology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, says fruit flies are a great animal model for understanding human neuronal degeneration because they are very similar at a cellular level.

Gloomy news launches important work 

What we’ve found is that flies do respond to injury in very similar ways to humans and that there are a number of variables that effect how the fly will respond. Those variables are the same for humans.

One day, while working in his lab, Wassarman received an e-mail from a colleague, Barry Ganetzky, PhD, a professor emeritus of genetics at UW-Madison who has more than 40 years experience in studying fruit fly biology.

Stories of head injuries and the sudden suicide of a famous football player had been dominating the news, and it occurred to Ganetzky that fruit flies might be able to make a contribution. The field was moving very slowly because traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a very complex disease.

That was the starting point. Soon after the initial discussions, Wassarman built a device that would cause trauma to a fly’s brain in an easily reproducible way. With the device, “we were off to the races. Now we could start to try to answer questions that had been plaguing the TBI field for a long time,” he said.

With relatively simple experiments and controls, the lab team could explore questions like what cellular and molecular events are triggered by a trauma to the head, and what molecular and cellular events happen over time after the initial injury.

What are the flies telling us?

“What we’ve found is that flies do respond to injury in very similar ways to humans and that there are a number of variables that effect how the fly will respond,” he said. “Those variables are the same for humans. For example, we’ve found that there is an age-dependant variable. Young flies, just like young humans, are more resistant to the bad outcomes of TBI than an older individual.”

“We’ve also found that another major factor that affects the outcome of TBI is genetics. The genes that the fly or human is carrying can dictate how receptive or responsive someone is to TBI. That’s the biggest discovery so far, because we can take flies with very different genetic backgrounds and ask how they respond to an injury, then we can determine what the genes were that were responsible for that response. Once we get down to the genetic level, it’s really going to be helpful for the diagnosis and treatment of TBI,” said Wassarman.

After only a year and a half of studying the fruit fly model, Wassarman and Ganetzky are making great strides and discoveries in the race to understand TBI. With this new research model in place, research has been moving very rapidly. Wassarman is hopeful that within the next several years, his lab will produce something that can translate directly to clinical care and make an impact in how physicians address treatment and prevention.

“I think the most important thing is that athletes know the potential consequences of their actions,” he said. “I love sports and I want people to continue to play sports, but I think everyone needs to know what the danger level is for them.”