Nov. 1, 2019

Researcher studying concussions in children receives Killam Post-Doctoral Scholar award

Postdoc Ashley Ware part of world’s largest neuroimaging study of paediatric concussion

Every year, millions of children across North America suffer a traumatic brain injury (TBI). The vast majority of these injuries — 85 to 90 per cent — are mild (mTBI) and many kids recover in just a few weeks. But about 30 per cent of children with mTBI do not recover quickly and they continue to suffer headaches, poor concentration and emotional issues such as depression.

Dr. Ashley Ware, PhD, who has just been named a 2019-2020 Killam Post-Doctoral Scholar, is trying to identify which children will recover quickly and which will not by studying their brains and looking for biomarkers. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), she’s studying the brain structure of about 1,000 children with TBI. 

“We don't understand the biological mechanisms that are being disrupted by concussion,” says Ware, a postdoctoral scholar in Dr. Keith Yeates’ lab in the Faculty of Arts. Yeates, PhD, is the Ronald and Irene Ward Chair in Paediatric Brain Injury, professor and head of the Department of Psychology, adjunct professor of paediatrics and clinical neurosciences, and head of UCalgary’s Integrated Concussion Research Program. 

The Killam awards support advanced education and research at five Canadian universities. Every year, UCalgary awards one Killam Post-Doctoral Scholar. “I know that it's highly competitive, and I am so grateful to have the support from Drs Yeates and Catherine Lebel, my co-supervisors,” says Ware. “I really don't think I would have received it without them.”

“Ashley is so deserving of this award,” says Dr. Catherine Lebel, PhD, associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine. “She brings endless energy and enthusiasm to her projects and her research has the potential to make a real difference for children’s health.”

The study is the first large-scale longitudinal research of its kind and receiving the Killam award — $50,000 over two years — will be of huge assistance. “I’m delighted to receive this award,” says Ware. “It means that I'm able to finish additional training, which is a big deal because I'm learning a lot of different techniques and technologies.”

Using data from the A-CAP project — Advancing Concussion Assessment in Paediatrics, a multi-site cohort study funded by a CIHR Foundation Grant to Yeates — Ware’s research aims to provide new knowledge that will further the understanding and help clinicians treat children with concussions. “It's probably safe to say it's the world's largest paediatric, neuroimaging study of mild TBI and extracranial injuries,” she says. 

“From a scientific standpoint, my research is helping to determine how mild TBI disrupt brain tissue or networks within the brain,” says Ware. “And then also, from a clinical standpoint, we are trying to identify a biomarker that will tell us who has a concussion and who does not.” The study will look for differences in the brain two weeks after injury and again at three and six months after injury and track that against the child’s recovery. 

Right now there is no gold standard of care for concussion. “One of the big problems with mild TBI, or concussion, is that it's really hard for a clinician to diagnose and understand who has that type of injury,” says Ware. “We don't know who is injured and we don't know who is going to get better or not better quickly. And so that's problematic, because it interferes with clinical decision-making and approach to medical care.”