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Valley Stream coma suvivor studies brain

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Christopher Infantino appreciates being awake. The 23-year-old Valley Stream resident and SUNY Stony Brook master’s candidate, who just returned from studying Alzheimer’s during an internship at the University of Kentucky at Lexington, has an unusual connection with consciousness, after spending a week in a coma when he was 11.

“I’d stayed home from school,” he remembered. “I started having trouble moving, so I called my dad and told him I needed to go to the emergency room.” Infantino become sicker en route, and once in the emergency room, lapsed into unconsciousness with a high fever. He was diagnosed with acute disseminated encephalo-meningitis, or ADEM, a condition in which the spinal fluid becomes infected. It can result in permanent brain damage or death, in some cases.

Infantino spent several weeks at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, where his fever spiked at 105 degrees. “The only thing I remember was someone stroking my hair,” he said.

Mother Angela Shirian said the doctors prepared her for the worst. “He was very lucky,” she said. “It was a miracle.”

The long period of physical rehabilitation was frustrating for the active 11-year-old, who had started playing football when he was 5. “I was in a hurry to get back out on the field,” he said. He described his progress from wheelchair to crutches to ankle brace. “Sometimes I’d pretend I was doing better than I was so I could get out of there,” he said, laughing.

“Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated with the brain, and wanted to know everything about it,” he said. After his father died in March 2014, he decided to pursue medical studies, hoping eventually to do research or to attend medical school.

Now in his last year of study for a master’s degree in neuroscience, Infantino is also in his final year of eligibility as an offensive right tackle for the Stony Brook Seawolves football team. Because of his love of football, the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Infantino is especially interested in CTE — chronic traumatic encephaly, a condition that affects a disproportionate percentage of football players.

Infantino has attended a number of conferences on CTE and hopes one day to play a role in developing a treatment for the condition — “maybe even discover a biomarker,” he said.

Researchers used to ascribe the condition to the cumulative effects of concussions, Infantino said. CTE can leave relatively young people with devastating cognitive deficits, including dementia. Infantino pointed to the case of former Pittsburgh Steelers star and Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Webster, who was 50 years old when he died in 2002, apparently of a football-related illness.

When concussions are severe, players are taken out of the game, Infantino explained. But players may suffer mini-concussions insufficiently serious to warrant being removed. Webster’s doctors estimated that he had experienced the equivalent of 25,000 car crashes in the course of his high school, college and professional career.

Infantino wanted to find a condition that shared a similar pathology with CTE. He studied autism during his sophomore year at Stony Brook and shadowed a physiatrist doing research into various types of traumatic brain injury as part of an internship at New York University last summer. Physiatry is the branch of medicine concerned with the science behind physical rehabilitation and recovery.

Ultimately, Infantino hit on Alzheimer’s as having a pathology that most closely resembled that of CTE. While at Kentucky, he worked with Dr. Paul Murphy, an associate professor at the university’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. Studying the genotype associated with familial Alzheimer’s, they examined the pathology of the disease, versus Alzheimer’s coupled with obesity.

In order to study the condition, Infantino described how laboratory animals were given water with lead, which caused the animals to show similar symptoms as humans presenting with Alzheimer’s and obesity. “The underlying pathology is the same” in both forms of the disease, he said. “But Alzheimer’s coupled with obesity appears to result in greater cognitive dysfunction and more side effects, like microbleeds or strokes.”

Infantino, who is a 2013 graduate of Valley Stream South High School, said Boston University is currently the only school where CTE is studied in depth. But despite his interest in the brain, he has yet to settle on a specialty. “Originally, I thought I’d get a Ph.D. and do research, or else go to medical school and get an M.D.,” he said. After studying end-of-life procedures with Stony Brook professor of neuro-pharmacology Dr. Patricia Whitaker-Azmitia, however, “I might want to think about surgery” as an option.

As for his immediate future, Infantino is considering Ph.D. and M.D. programs. “UCLA would be great,” as a possible first choice, he said. “But it would be a real reach.” The university’s David Geffen School of Medicine is consistently ranked among the top 10 medical schools in the country. He said he’d be happy to continue on to Stony Brook’s school of medicine — an option that would please his family.

Infantino’s twin passions of science and football have not left much time for outside pursuits. Asked about other interests, he paused and drew a momentary blank before saying he enjoys playing basketball with his friends.

Infantino said that friendships have been the best part of his career path so far. “A lot of my friends are studying medicine,” he said. “It’s been great watching their careers unfold.” Low points? “All-nighters,” he said, adding that he knows his future is likely to include many more of them.