Healing the Brain

Authored By: dies0044 06/10/2021

Written by Barbara Cox

Family and friends of Minnesota man who died by suicide after suffering traumatic brain injuries join forces to support neurotrauma research

When J. Aron Allen—devoted husband and father, attorney, accomplished athlete and youth coach—died by suicide in 2018 at age 49, his family and friends reeled with grief. Sadly, they had been struggling for some time as they watched Aron undergo significant personality changes following a head injury in 2017, which came on the heels of numerous sports-related head traumas over his lifetime.

“We saw Aron go from a pragmatic, level-headed, vigorous and loving family man to someone who was often irrational, lost a great deal of weight and increasingly isolated himself from his friends and family,” says Aron’s widow Shelley Allen, who has since learned that those symptoms are all too common for people who have suffered head trauma. 

After Aron’s death, Shelley, along with close friends Valerie Tracy and James Ladner, started the J. Aron Allen Legacy Foundation to raise money in Aron’s name for neurotrauma research and help educate others about traumatic brain injuries.

Urgent need

Brain injury is the number one cause of death in Americans under 35. That grim statistic helps drive neurotrauma researcher and neurosurgeon Uzma Samadani, MD, associate professor in the University of Minnesota Rochester’s Department of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology and part of the U’s Graduate Program in Neuroscience.

“There is a documented increased risk for suicide following brain injury,” Samadani says. “That’s why interventions to help people recover from head trauma are so urgent.”

But brain injuries are treatable: Samadani drives that message home constantly. And it’s a message that people who suffer traumatic brain injuries need to hear, she says, because more than 80% of them, like Aron Allen, don’t seek help. Instead, they get trapped in a downward spiral of despair.

In order to treat traumatic brain injuries effectively, Samadani says, we first need an objective means of diagnosing and measuring neurotrauma—a tougher challenge than diagnosing heart disease or kidney failure for example. “The brain is a much more complex organ with control of many, many bodily functions, so it’s much harder to effectively measure damage,” she says.

Samadani’s lab focuses on three means of measuring traumatic brain injury: serum biomarkers, or blood tests, to determine which cell types have been damaged; eye tracking, or measuring eye movement (known to be affected by brain injury), which can help identify specific areas of damage; and brain scans (CT and MRI) to detect structural damage.

Working with three neuroscience graduate students in her lab and close colleagues in the U’s computer science and bioinformatics departments, Samadani has made a good start on her goals. The team is already able to classify several types of brain injuries, and both the blood tests and eye-tracking tests have been cleared for use by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. 

Aron’s legacy

Samadani met Shelley, Valerie and Jim when they set out to educate themselves about local neurotrauma research, and now an $80,000 gift from the J. Aron Allen Legacy Foundation helps Samadani move the work forward.

“We have to do more to erase the stigma of mental illness, brain trauma and suicide,” Shelley says, “because if this could happen to Aron, it could happen to anyone.”

Samadani agrees. “Brain injury is among the most poorly understood of human afflictions,” she says. “Aron Allen is proof that brain injury can be fatal if not treated, and we, as a society, need to take this problem seriously.”

Learn more about the J. Aron Allen Foundation by visiting their website or contacting j.aronallenlegacyfoundation@gmail.com. To find out how your gift can make a difference in brain trauma research at the U of M, contact Marco Lanz at lanz0059@umn.edu.