In her PittMed article, Elaine Vitone reviewed human performance optimization efforts by numerous University of Pittsburgh researchers and the results of their studies on the functioning of the human body. Included in her article were highlights from the work of McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty members:
- Ronald Poropatich, MD, Director of the Center for Military Medicine Research (CMMR), Health Sciences and Professor of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, and also serves as a Senior Advisor for Telemedicine, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
- Rory Cooper, PhD, FISA & Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Professor and Distinguished Professor of the Department of Rehabilitation Science & Technology, Professor of Bioengineering, Physical Med & Rehab, and Orthopedic Surgery, Founding Director and VA Senior Research Career Scientist of the Human Engineering Research, an Adjunct Professor in the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, and PM&R of the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences
- Freddie Fu, MD, Distinguished Service Professor and the David Silver Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center with secondary appointments at Pitt as a Professor of Physical Therapy, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Professor of Health and Physical Activity, School of Education, and Professor of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Swanson School of Engineering and, since 1986, head team physician for the University of Pittsburgh Department of Athletics
- Bradley Nindl, PhD, Director of the Neuromuscular Research Laboratory/Warrior Human Performance Research Center and Professor in the Department of Sports Medicine in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh
Human performance is a crucial concern for the American military, says Dr. Poropatich, who through the CMMR works closely with the Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense (DOD) research arms to solve military medical problems. The most common reasons for American soldiers to be medically evacuated from combat theatre today are not injuries from jumping from planes or taking enemy fire. They’re musculoskeletal injuries, but largely from training and carrying around a rucksack.
In June, Pitt will host a national conference on human performance optimization, organized by collaborators across the health sciences. In September, the DOD will join in on a two-day meeting with Dr. Poropatich and others at Pitt to discuss how academia can fill in gaps in the DOD’s own efforts. “To open their eyes to areas of human performance optimization that they’re not currently thinking about,” says Dr. Poropatich.
But improving performance isn’t just in the interest of service members, of course. “There are lots of people at Pitt” chasing down this goal, says Dr. Cooper, “whether it’s post-transplant, or post–spinal cord injury, or amputation, or our own Division I athletes, or special operations forces.” Dr. Cooper has garnered numerous awards for his contributions to assistive technology, a field that enhances daily living for persons with disabilities. He’s also an elite athlete, medaling in the Paralympics and National Veterans Wheelchair Games year after year. (He’s racked up 150 Wheelchair Games medals.)
Dr. Fu, world renowned for innovating and evaluating surgical fixes for injured athletes’ knees, has made Pitt a powerhouse in probing the biomechanics of sports injuries. He helped conceptualize the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, which opened in 2000 on the South Side. (It’s where the Steelers and Panthers do indoor training.) The sports medicine center there was just named for Dr. Fu. And in 2015, the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, a comprehensive outpatient sports medicine facility and training site for the Pittsburgh Penguins, opened in Cranberry. (“Nobody else has two sports centers,” Dr. Fu says.)
Dr. Fu oversees one of the largest, most comprehensive sports medicine clinical and research operations in the world. And he has worked to bring human performance optimization from the realm of the hocus-pocus to solid, replicable, peer-reviewed science.
In 1990, with an investment of $5,000 and half a classroom in Trees Hall, Dr. Fu founded the Neuromuscular Research Laboratory (NMRL). Slowly and steadily, NMRL grew, encompassing studies of a variety of athletes, as well as military service members. Three years ago, an entirely new facility dubbed the Neuromuscular Research Laboratory/Warrior Human Performance Research Center (NMRL/WHPRC) opened on Pittsburgh’s South Side.
Today, in the 11,600-square-foot space where lab meets gym, NMRL researchers study just about every physiological aspect of the human form in medias res: proprioception, postural stability, strength, range of motion, flexibility, bone and mineral density, you name it. There’s an on-site biochemistry lab, a suite of motion-capture cameras, a transcranial magnetic stimulator. (TMS is a noninvasive way of stimulating specific areas of the brain.) It even has a swimming flume and an underwater treadmill.
Dr. Nindl came on board as director when the new facility opened. He calls it his dream job, and this physiology PhD does seem every bit the part. He’s a military guy—a reservist who served for 20 years as an Army Medical Department government scientist, primarily studying biomarkers for fitness and health outcomes.
“And I grew up a coach’s kid—very motivated to be the best athlete I can be,” he says.
In the past five years, exercise physiology research is complementing our expanding knowledge of health at the micro level, from head to toe. Human performance optimization is now more of a hybrid of both basic and applied science, Dr. Nindl says.
Dr. Nindl is a coprincipal investigator on a three-year study funded by the U.K. Ministry of Defence. SPARTA, which stands for Soldier Performance and Readiness as Tactical Athletes, will evaluate the efficacy of a variety of physical training regimens in preparing women for what’s required in close ground combat. “I’ve done a lot of work looking at both men and women and how they adapt,” says Dr. Nindl, “and I know that with optimal proper training you can significantly [close physical performance] gaps.”
Per Ms. Vitone, with all its research and clinical capabilities, Pitt, it seems, is uniquely positioned to anchor Pittsburgh as a Human Performance City.