Brain; Mental Health

Specialist spotlight: Paging Dr. Nyaz Didehbani

Brain; Mental Health

Nyaz Didehbani, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist who has focused much of her research and clinical work on concussion care.

There’s a strong correlation between Dr. Nyaz Didehbani’s work at UT Southwestern as a neuropsychologist and her lifetime love of sports.

In middle school, she began to excel at sports, which gave her a sense of belonging and confidence.

Nowadays, Dr. Didehbani still leads a very active lifestyle and spends much of her free time on the sidelines as a proud “soccer uber mom,” cheering on her kids, ages 10 and 6.

But when it comes to the issue of concussions and sports, she is square in the middle of the action, working with former and current NFL players, NHL players, young athletes, and military veterans to research traumatic brain injuries as Co-Director of UT Southwestern’s Neurorehabilitation Program.

Beginning Dec. 3, Dr. Didehbani will bring expert concussion care to patients at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Frisco, caring for the community she has called home for 20 years.

Tell us a bit about your background and your journey to UT Southwestern.

“My family is from Iran and I’m a proud first-generation Texan, born in Grand Prairie and raised in The Colony. My parents came to the States during the Iranian revolution in 1978 and attended school at the University of North Texas.

“I received my undergrad degree from Baylor and obtained my doctorate from UNT in behavioral medicine. Then came a one-year internship at Wayne State Medical Center in Michigan before returning for a postdoctoral fellowship in neuropsychology at UT Dallas. I joined UT Southwestern four years ago as an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry.”

What effect has team sports had on your life and career?

“As a kid, I was a bit on the chubby side, until middle school where I become very involved in sports, playing basketball, volleyball, running track, and soccer. I loved the teamwork, the competition, and the drive to win, which are all important life lessons. Sports definitely gave me confidence, and belonging to a team was a positive experience. Now as a clinician and researcher, one of my strengths is that I work well with everyone and connect with people.”

How long have you lived in Frisco?

“My mom moved to Frisco when I was an undergrad, so I’ve been there for about 20 years. Now, I’m very happily living in Frisco with my husband (a biomedical engineer who did his graduate studies at UT Southwestern) and kids, who love their schools.”

Dr. Nyaz Didehbani: Concussion expert

Dr. Nyaz Didehbani has worked closely with retired NFL and NHL players, as well as youth sports teams, conducting research into concussion and traumatic brain injuries. She treats patients at the new UT Southwestern Frisco facility and has lived in the area for 20 years.

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What is your overall approach to the problem of concussions and football?

“Football has always been a big part of Texas culture, so all of the recent publicity surrounding concussions and football-related head injuries has hit with a bit more force here than perhaps in other places. My stance on concussions is that any type of head injury has to be addressed, assessed, and managed as soon as possible. I firmly believe that one important approach to this whole issue is to incorporate lifestyle medicine into the diagnosis. In other words, it is important to treat the whole person, taking into account how their overall environment can affect their type of injury and recovery.”

Have you treated many veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries?

“Yes, I’ve been involved on a number of Department of Defense-funded research projects looking into veterans with TBI and with PTSD. What compounds the issue for the deployed personnel is the emotional stress that goes along with being deployed.” 

Do you see similarities between athletes and military personnel who suffer from TBI?

“I do. Both groups have already faced a strict selection process and they are both highly competitive. Athletes and military personnel also engage in intensive physical training on a regular basis. Of course, the difference comes down to the environment. Being in a war zone is quite different from being on an athletic field. There can be a greater sense of anxiety as it relates to survival for veterans compared to athletes.” 

Have you treated any former NFL players for traumatic brain injuries or CTE?

“I’ve worked with more than 70 retired NFL players. Most are doing well. Some have dementia, but it’s at about the same frequency as the average population. There is a lot of research going on surrounding football players and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), but there is still plenty we don’t know.”    

Dr. Nyaz Didehbani, right, with her family at an FC Dallas game in Frisco.

How do you approach the potential head injury conundrum in your own family?

“My kids love playing soccer and of course as a parent you worry about your kids’ safety. In fact, we just had a game and my son was hit hard in the head by a soccer ball and fell to the ground. The coach removed him immediately to be assessed and fortunately, my son did not sustain a concussion. After his game, we talked about his hit, what it means to have a concussion, and the importance of reporting symptoms.

“I will tell you as a parent who played sports, I value the positive experiences of the game – the camaraderie and sportsmanship – which I believe outweigh the potential harm. In fact, my 10-year-old son has had one concussion in his life, and it didn’t happen on an athletic field but rather in our own living room, where he fell while playing.”

What are some underappreciated health dangers most of us don’t understand?

“I think one of the biggest health factors that is often overlooked is sleep. When it comes to athletes – from youth to professional – their sleep patterns can be very irregular, and sleep has a lot of impact on brain function, including memory and slowing down the processing of information. Sleep deprivation prior to or after an injury can have a huge impact on cognitive health.”

What do you think UT Southwestern will bring to the Frisco community? 

"What’s exciting is that Frisco will be getting the great benefits of UT Southwestern’s multiple clinical specialties and departments all working collaboratively in one place. As Co-Director of the Neurorehabilitation Program at UT Southwestern Frisco, much of my clinical time will be spent in Frisco.

"For patients and people in the community, it means that the growing area in and around Frisco will also have greater access to more interdisciplinary care in one place – and that is really exciting."

Hitting the field for concussion awareness

Dr. Didehbani and her colleagues have teamed up to raise awareness about concussions in the community. They’re fighting some misconceptions about safety, but also making sure athletes, parents and coaches have the most up-to-date information to protect young athletes.