Neural injury


Understanding the mechanisms of spinal injury


About our research

Led by Prof Lynne Bilston, key research is directed towards understanding the mechanisms of spinal injury in children, and improving child restraints used in cars.

Problems include whether children use restraints correctly and whether they use restraints that are appropriate for their size, and whether the rear seat restraints perform as well as those for front seat passengers.

Fundamental to this work is understanding the differences between injuries in children and in adults. We are investigating how their body tissues are different, including their size, how much load they can tolerate, how stiff they are, and how these factors, along with developmental changes, affect the types of injury that children sustain.

We use MRI techniques, such as magnetic resonance elastography, to measure the stiffness of body tissues in live human subjects in ways that have previously been impossible. This technique also has applications beyond road trauma research; there are also changes in tissue stiffness in some diseases, such as cancer, which is what allows us to detect breast cancer lumps, for example. We are using this technique to examine changes in brain tissue in brain cancer, in a condition called hydrocephalus (fluid accumulation in the brain) and also in muscles after injury.

What we have discovered

  • Many injuries to children in car crashes are preventable by using a restraint that is the right size for the child, and using the restraint correctly.
  • Children are not big enough to fit properly into adult car seats and belts until about 11 years of age.
  • Differences in spinal cord injury between adults and children may be related to differences in the stiffness of their spinal column and responses to forces that occur during injury.

Current projects

Magnetic Resonance Elastography

We are using this new MRI technique to measure the stiffness of the brain, muscles and other tissues. This method uses an external vibration in the tissue, the propagation of which is measured with the MRI scanner to estimate the stiffness and viscosity of the tissue. The stiffness changes with age and in some diseases, so this research may help us develop better methods of diagnosis of diseases of the brain and muscle, such as hydrocephalus, sleep apnoea, and muscle injury.

Effects of mechanical loads on the nervous system

We are studying how mechanical forces affect the tissues of the human nervous system. This research ranges from spinal cord and peripheral nerve injury to chronic conditions such as syringomyelia and hydrocephalus. Recent work on the mechanical factors in spinal cord injury has shown that the difference in spinal cord injury incidence and severity between adults and children is influenced both by fundamental differences in the spinal column flexibility and stiffness, and differences in intrinsic spinal cord tissue responses to mechanical loading.

Upper airway biomechanics

We are studying the mechanical properties and motion of muscles that surround the upper airway and how these change in people with sleep apnoea.

See what’s going on at NeuRA