LINCOLN — An unusual partnership between a University of Nebraska-Lincoln brain researcher and Husker athletics could put Nebraska at the global forefront of understanding the mysteries of the human brain and how it recovers from injury.
Developmental psychologist Dennis Molfese describes his work as standing at the edge of an unexplored land.
“We're asking questions people haven't asked before,” he said, describing his wonder at conducting experiments that sometimes allow him to be “the only person in humanity who has seen this result.”
On Friday, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents unanimously approved a $5 million expenditure to equip a new athletic performance laboratory. Located in new office space on the east side of Memorial Stadium, it will be a sister lab to Molfese's Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior — dubbed the CB³.
CB³ was approved in 2011. Both labs are slated to open in the summer of 2013.
The athletic performance laboratory will identify training practices that help win games and enhance the well-being of student athletes.
It will operate hand-in-hand with Molfese's laboratory. Along with conducting other brain studies, the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior will coordinate collaborative studies of concussions among Big Ten athletes.
“We're the last university to join the Big Ten, but we're taking the initiative with this,” Molfese said. “The level of collaboration is unprecedented.”
On average, Molfese said, a college football team suffers 20 to 22 significant head injuries each season. The 12 football teams in the Big Ten thus would create a pool of more than 240 student-athletes to study.
Molfese hopes to obtain baseline pictures of incoming athletes' brains to examine how they change through injury and recovery. He envisions developing iPad applications to diagnose concussions on the field. He wants to study athletes' brain patterns before and after a performance.
Molfese said the Committee on Institutional Cooperation — the Big Ten's academic arm — has received inquiries from the Ivy League, Pac-12 and other conferences about joining the effort.
Molfese's research is not limited to jocks and brain injuries. He has studied everything from how babies recognize the emotions of other people to how astronauts respond to sleep deprivation.
His research relies heavily on “evoked potential technology,” machines that use electrode nets placed on a subject's head to measure the brain's electrical impulses as it responds to stimulus.
But he also wanted a special magnetic resonance imaging machine that has the capability to show brain activity and can cost $2 million. It differs from most MRI machines, which are limited to showing the brain's structure.
Molfese, who was recruited from the University of Louisville in 2010, mentioned to psychology department Chairman David Hansen during a pre-hire discussion that he was shopping for the special MRI machine.
It was Hansen's idea to contact Doak Ostergard, outreach director for the athletic department. Ostergard saw the possibilities of using such an MRI machine to diagnose athletes' concussions and other injuries.
Athletic Director Tom Osborne and Vice Chancellor of Research Prem Paul were drawn into the discussions, and a decision was made to allocate half of new office space in the East Stadium expansion to Molfese.
The athletic department also agreed to pay $1.5 million of the $5 million cost to outfit Molfese's lab. “It's an incredibly generous offer on behalf of Tom Osborne and the athletic department,” Molfese said.
Wally Crittenden, a former assistant soccer coach, had proposed a Nebraska sports institute several years ago that would focus on best practices in athletic training, research and education. The idea didn't gain much traction at the time, Ostergard said, but everything seemed to fall into place with Molfese.
An Oklahoma native, Molfese said he is a football fan and a longtime Osborne admirer. Of course, he also is Barry Switzer fan, he added quickly.
Since his arrival in Lincoln, his lab has been housed in cramped and nondescript quarters in Nebraska Hall. His frequent collaborator is his wife, Victoria “Tori” Molfese, a nationally known developmental psychologist and expert in early childhood development. She serves as a chancellor's professor in the Center for Child, Youth and Family Studies.
In 16 months at UNL, Dennis Molfese has been something of an interdisciplinary evangelist, seeking out experts from across the university who might be interested in using brain studies in their research.
He has conducted six two-day workshops, teaching 169 faculty members, graduate students and undergraduates about brain research.
Thirty people followed up with more in-depth training, and six now are conducting experiments related to their field of study. They include John Hibbing and Kevin Smith, political scientists who are studying the biological roots of political belief, and Dave DeLillo, a psychologist who studies family violence.
Molfese said evoked potential technology can be used for anything from musicians who want to learn how the brain responds to musical training to anthropologists who want to explore how a flint knapper shapes an arrowhead from a piece of stone.
Brandon Rigoni, a Husker strength coach, has taken the technology into the stadium to study athletes' brain activity before and after workouts.
Paul, the vice chancellor for research and economic development, on Friday touted Molfese as one of several scientists who are leading a surge in UNL's research efforts.
During Friday's regents meeting, NU officials reported that research awards received by both UNL and the University of Nebraska Medical Center continue to exceed goals set by the board.
At UNMC, research is growing nearly eight times faster than the national standard, and UNL research awards have grown four times faster, officials said.
Jennifer Larsen, the medical center's vice chancellor for research, said her institution is focusing on “translational research” — that is, moving basic laboratory findings into medical treatments and public health improvements. A plan to develop a unified cancer campus where researchers will work side-by-side with physicians treating patients is an example of the approach, Larsen said.
UNL reached nearly $108 million in federal research awards last year. During the past three years, UNL research funding has grown 14.32 percent annually.
UNMC research dollars reached $66 million in 2011, for an average increase of 23.46 percent during the past three years. Meanwhile, the amount of funds available for federally sponsored research has grown an average of only 3.77 percent a year, officials said.
That means the two institutions are gaining a greater “market share” of research funding, NU President J.B. Milliken said.
In other action Friday, regents:
» Approved a new Center for Health Policy at UNMC. The center is intended to link academic health researchers with government, health care providers and community leaders to help shape health policy decisions.
» Approved a new degree major in supply chain management at UNL. Milliken said the new major responds to job growth in Nebraska's transportation sector.
Susan Fritz, who manages workforce development efforts for the NU provost, said Nebraska should add 123,110 new jobs by 2018, growth of more than 10 percent.
In the short term, most growth is occurring in transportation and utilities sectors, while long-term projections are for more jobs in health care, computers and mathematics.
By 2018, two-thirds of jobs in Nebraska will require at least some training beyond high school, she said.
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