In 1984, his 15-year-old son, Dennis John, sustained a severe brain injury after being struck by a car while walking home from a football physical. That’s when Benigno learned just how little was understood about traumatic brain injury and how few options existed for patients like his son.
“I realized that nothing was going to help him or others in his situation unless there were ways to reverse the effect of brain injuries,” Benigno says. So he and his wife, Rosalind, established the Coalition for Brain Injury Research, a private foundation that lobbied for legislation to fund research into treatments and even a cure.
In 1998, they approached Congressman Bill Pascrell, invited him to visit their son, and made their case.
Pascrell was moved, and in 2001, along with James Greenwood, a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, founded the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force. Meanwhile, Benigno’s lobbying in his home state was paying off. In 2004, Governor McGreevey signed into law the Brain Injury Research Act, establishing the New Jersey Commission on Brain Injury Research, of which Benigno is executive director.
The law mandates that a $1 surcharge on all traffic violations in the state go to fund TBI studies. Researchers submit grant proposals. This year, the commission handed out its second round of grants, totaling $3.5 million, to researchers including John Pintar of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, whose work may ultimately offer insight into the restoration of damaged nerve cells, and Rutgers’ Dr. Haesun Kim, who seeks to understand the mechanisms of nerve cell destruction.
When powerful shock waves roil the brain, they can sever the nerve cells (axons) that convey electrical messages. Sometimes the shock does not break the axon but only stretches it, leaving intact the insulating sheath of myelin that surrounds it. “When the axon is merely stretched,” says Kim, “the myelin stays intact at first, but eventually some degeneration takes place. If we can determine why, we may someday be able to prevent that from happening.”
Thanks to Benigno, New Jersey is the first state in the nation to establish a continuous funding stream for brain-injury research. “When it involves your child, the worst possible situation is to have no hope,” he says. “I think this program has started to fill that gap."