David Cifu with Kevin Sickinger and Joe Montanari.
David Cifu (middle) works with U.S. Army veterans and research participants, Kevin Sickinger and Joe Montanari at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond. (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)

Department of Veterans Affairs honors VCU researcher for pioneering traumatic brain injury research

David Cifu’s work in the field includes leading two federally funded projects to address the long-term effects of mild traumatic brain injury in military service personnel and veterans.

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David Cifu, M.D., whose pioneering work in the field of traumatic brain injury research has led to him leading two federally funded research projects to address the long-term effects of mild traumatic brain injury in military service personnel and veterans, has been named this year’s recipient of the Paul B. Magnuson Award. Established by the Veterans Affairs Rehabilitation Research and Development Service in 1998, the award recognizes the importance of rehabilitation research within the VA Health Care System.

Cifu, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and associate dean of innovation and systems integration at the VCU School of Medicine, was the principal investigator for the “Chronic Effects of Neurotrauma Consortium,” and is now leading its successor, the “Long-term Impact of Military Relevant Brain Injury Consortium.” The latter, a longitudinal study that spans a national consortium of universities, hospitals and clinics, is investigating the ongoing health impacts of combat concussions. Researchers have already discovered correlations between traumatic brain injuries and dementia, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, opioid usage and suicide risk.

"Dr. Cifu is nationally regarded as VA's leading researcher in combat-related neurotrauma,” said J. Ronald Johnson, director of the Central Virginia VA Health Care System in Richmond. “Through his many collaborative efforts, he has brought together more than 100 researchers to translate neuroscience research to clinical care for veterans with disability.”

Joe Montanari, who has experienced balance issues, sleep troubles and severe migraines since sustaining two mild brain injuries during active duty in the Army and National Guard, is one of thousands of veterans participanting in the research. He is also a research assistant in the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

“This is my first desk job, and he has really helped me relax more and adjust to being inside,” Montanari said.

Working alongside Cifu and other researchers in this role has helped keep Montanari grounded and connected with fellow veterans. His main objective is to retain as many participants in the study as possible so the consortium can continue collecting data that will improve prevention and treatment of traumatic brain injuries and related conditions.

For Cifu, working closely with military veterans like Montanari has reinforced the importance of thinking long term rather than focusing on singular tasks.

“I have learned that there are many components, many contributors and many ‘battles’ that must be overcome to accomplish the larger mission,” Cifu said. “Most importantly, I have learned that nothing of great importance is achieved by luck, by simply wishing for it, by going solo or overnight, but rather the meaningful accomplishments come about by hard work, perseverance, planning and teamwork.”

Peter Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine, said this award from the Department of Veterans Affairs is a well-deserved testament to the ongoing and lasting impact of Cifu’s research.

“Dr. Cifu’s unrelenting commitment to connecting the dots between traumatic brain injuries and long-term secondary conditions exemplifies the School of Medicine’s mission to develop more effective health care practices to address the needs of the diverse populations we serve,” Buckley said. “We are immensely proud and grateful to Dr. Cifu for his continuous innovation, leadership and dedication to improving the lives of American veterans and service members.”

The Magnuson Award is one of numerous accolades for Cifu, and it reflects what he describes as the most rewarding part of his work: contributing to the improvement of people’s lives.

“I have been privileged for more than three decades to contribute to the well-being of America’s heroes and have been so grateful to be able to play a role in improving their specific health care, their access to health care and the system of care that will allow them to have enhanced care in the future,” Cifu said.