Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a heterogeneous disorder with many factors contributing to a spectrum of severity, leading to cognitive dysfunction that may last for many years after injury. Injury to axons in the white matter, which are preferentially vulnerable to biomechanical forces, is prevalent in many TBIs. Unlike focal injury to a discrete brain region, axonal injury is fundamentally an injury to the substrate by which networks of the brain communicate with one another. The brain is envisioned as a series of dynamic, interconnected networks that communicate via long axonal conduits termed the "connectome". Ensembles of neurons communicate via these pathways and encode information within and between brain regions in ways that are timing dependent. Our central hypothesis is that traumatic injury to axons may disrupt the exquisite timing of neuronal communication within and between brain networks, and that this may underlie aspects of post-TBI cognitive dysfunction. With a better understanding of how highly interconnected networks of neurons communicate with one another in important cognitive regions such as the limbic system, and how disruption of this communication occurs during injury, we can identify new therapeutic targets to restore lost function. This requires the tools of systems neuroscience, including electrophysiological analysis of ensemble neuronal activity and circuitry changes in awake animals after TBI, as well as computational modeling of the effects of TBI on these networks. As more is revealed about how inter-regional neuronal interactions are disrupted, treatments directly targeting these dysfunctional pathways using neuromodulation can be developed.
Keywords: TBI; axonal injury; concussion; ensemble coding; hippocampus; limbic system; oscillations; synchrony.