David O. Okonkwo, MD, PhD

Director, Neurotrauma Clinical Trials Center
Director, Scoliosis and Spinal Deformity Program
Special Advisor, UPMC Enterprises

David Okonkwo




David Okonkwo, MD, PhD, is professor of neurological surgery and director of the Neurotrauma Clinical Trials Center at the University of Pittsburgh. He is also director of neurotrauma and the scoliosis and spinal deformity program at UPMC Presbyterian. In addition, Dr. Okonkwo is a member of the medical staff for the Pittsburgh Steelers Football Club.

Dr. Okonkwo completed his undergraduate work at the University of Virginia, where he was a Howard Hughes Undergraduate Biomedical Research Scholar. He completed his medical and doctoral education through the MD/PhD program of the Medical College of Virginia of Virginia Commonwealth University.

He joined the University of Pittsburgh Department of Neurological Surgery in 2006 following completion of neurosurgical residency at the University of Virginia and a fellowship at Auckland Public Hospital in Auckland, New Zealand. He has additional specialized training in scoliosis surgery.

Dr. Okonkwo’s clinical interests are traumatic injuries to the brain and spine as well as scoliosis and spinal deformity. His research endeavors involve developing biomarkers, advanced neuroimaging modalities and novel therapeutic interventions for brain and spinal cord injury. Dr. Okonkwo is a principal investigator of a national clinical research network (TRACK-TBI) to advance our understanding and treatment of traumatic brain injury. He is also principal investigator of several ongoing clinical studies in neurotrauma in Pittsburgh.

Dr. Okonkwo has published more than 200 papers in refereed journals, authored numerous book chapters, and garnered several awards for his scientific research. He is a member of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, the Congress of Neurological Surgeons and the National and International Neurotrauma Societies

Specialized Areas of Interest

Brain and spine trauma; scoliosis; spinal deformity; minimally invasive spine surgery; sports medicine; experimental therapies for brain and spinal cord injuries.

Board Certifications

American Board of Neurological Surgery

Hospital Privileges

UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh
UPMC Mercy
UPMC Presbyterian

Professional Organizational Membership

Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society
American Academy of Neurological Surgery
American Association of Neurological Surgeons
Congress of Neurological Surgeons
International Spine Study Group
National Neurotrauma Society
Society of Lateral Access Surgery 

Education & Training

BA, Biology, University of Virginia, 1994
MD, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2000
PhD, Anatomy, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2000
Fellowship, Neurosurgery, Auckland Public Hospital, 2005
Residency, Neurosurgery, University of Virginia, 2006

Honors & Awards

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Magazine, 2018-19

Selected Publications

Hamilton DK, Kanter AS, Bolinger BD, Mundis GM Jr, Nguyen S, Mummaneni PV, Anand N, Fessler RG, Passias PG, Park P, La Marca F, Uribe JS, Wang MY, Akbarnia BA, Shaffrey CI, Okonkwo DO; International Spine Study Group (ISSG). Reoperation rates in minimally invasive, hybrid and open surgical treatment for adult spinal deformity with minimum 2-year follow-up. Eur Spine J 25(8):2605-11, 2016.

Park P, Okonkwo DO, Nguyen S, Mundis GM Jr, Than KD, Deviren V, La Marca F, Fu KM, Wang MY, Uribe JS, Anand N, Fessler R, Nunley PD, Chou D, Kanter AS, Shaffrey CI, Akbarnia BA, Passias PG, Eastlack RK, Mummaneni PV; International Spine Study Group. Can a Minimal Clinically Important Difference Be Achieved in Elderly Patients With Adult Spinal Deformity Who Undergo Minimally Invasive Spinal Surgery? World Neurosurg 86:168-72, 2016.

Wang KK, Yang Z, Yue JK, Zhang Z, Winkler EA, Puccio A, Diaz-Arrastia R, Lingsma H, Yuh EL, Mukherjee P, Valadka A, Gordon WA, Okonkwo DO, Manley GT. Plasma Anti-Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein (GFAP) Autoantibody Levels During the Acute and Chronic Phases of Traumatic Brain Injury - A TRACK-TBI Pilot Study. J Neurotrauma 33(13):1270-7, 2016.

Presson N, Beers SR, Morrow L, Wagener LM, Bird WA, Van Eaman G, Krishnaswamy D, Penderville J, Borasso A, Benso S, Puccio AM, Fissel C, Okonkwo DO, Schneider W. An exploratory analysis linking neuropsychological testing to quantification of tractography using High Definition Fiber Tracking (HDFT) in military TBI. Brain Imaging Behav 9(3):484-99, 2015

Korley FK, Diaz-Arrastia R, Wu AH, Yue JK, Manley GT M D Ph D, Sair HI, Van Eyk J, Everett AD, Okonkwo DO, Valadka A, Gordon WA, Maas A, Mukherjee P, Yuh EL, Lingsma H, Puccio AM, Schnyer DM. Circulating Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) Has Diagnostic and Prognostic Value in Traumatic Brain Injury. J Neurotrauma 33(2):215-25, 2015.

Presson N, Krishnaswamy D, Wagener L, Bird W, Jarbo K, Pathak S, Puccio AM, Borasso A, Benso S, Okonkwo DO, Schneider W. Quantifying white matter structural integrity with high-definition fiber tracking in traumatic brain injury. Mil Med 180(3 Suppl):109-21, 2015.

Park P, Wang MY, Lafage V, Nguyen S, Ziewacz J, Okonkwo DO, Uribe JS, Eastlack RK, Anand N, Haque R, Fessler RG, Kanter AS, Deviren V, La Marca F, Smith JS, Shaffrey CI, Mundis GM Jr, Mummaneni PV, on behalf of the International Spine Study Group. Comparison of two minimally invasive surgery strategies to treat adult spinal deformity. J Neurosurg Spine 22(4):374-80, 2015.

Diaz-Arrastia R, Wang KK, Papa L, Sorani MD, Yue JK, Puccio AM, McMahon PJ, Inoue T, Yuh EL, Lingsma HF, Maas AIR, Valadka AB, Okonkwo DO, Manley GT and the TRACK-TBI Investigators. Acute biomarkers of traumatic brain injury: Relationship between plasma levels of ubiquitin C-terminal hydrolase-L1 (UCH-L1) and glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP). J Neurotrauma 31(1):19-25, 2014.

Okonkwo DO, Yue JK, Puccio AM, Panczykowski DM, Inoue T, McMahon PJ, Sorani MD, Yuh EL, Lingsma HL, Maas AIR, Valadka AB, Manley GT, and TRACK-TBI Investigators. GFAP-BDP as an Acute Diagnostic Marker in Traumatic Brain Injury: Results from the prospective TRACK-TBI Study. J Neurotrauma 30(17):1490-7, 2013.

Clifton GL, Valadka A, Zygun D, Coffey CS, Drever P, Fourwinds S, Janis LS, Wilde E, Taylor P, Harshman K, Conley A, Puccio A, Levin HS, McCauley SR, Bucholz RD, Smith KR, Schmidt JH, Scott JN, Yonas H, Okonkwo DO. Very early hypothermia induction in patients with severe brain injury (the National Acute Brain Injury Study: Hypothermia II): a randomised trial. Lancet Neurol 10(2):131-39, 2011.

A complete list of Dr. Okonkwo's publications can be reviewed through the National Library of Medicine's publication database.

Research Activities

Dr. Okonkwo’s current research efforts include:

1) Transforming Research and Clinical Knowledge in Traumatic Brain Injury (aka TRACK-TBI)

TRACK-TBI is an 18-site consortium that is recruiting 3000 acute TBI subjects. TRACK-TBI will directly impact public health by creating an open-access Information Commons of integrated clinical, imaging, proteomic, genomic, and outcome biomarkers, that will permit more precise TBI diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. Dr. Okonkwo is principal investigator of the clinical core. The TRACK-TBI network is beginning to make significant progress in identifying novel biomarkers and imaging strategies that will revolutionize clinical care for traumatic brain injuries.

2) Biomarkers and Drug Discovery Pipeline of TBI-Related Neurodegeneration

The goal of this project is to identify neuroimaging and biomarker correlates of TBI-related neurodegeneration and to pinpoint therapeutic targets through an innovative drug discovery pipeline that will lead to new approaches to TBI prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

3) In Vivo Neuroimaging Biomarker Panel for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

This project develops and tests an in vivo neuroimaging biomarker panel for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, consisting of use high-resolution positron emission tomography (PET) imaging combined with white matter damage using MR-based High Definition Fiber Tracking (HDFT) and cerebrospinal fluid `analyses for detecting pathological changes in total tau, phosphorylated tau, and Aβ peptides. The goal is to provide quantitative early non-invasive assessment of CTE disease to identify targets for CTE therapy.

Media Appearances

Stem Cell Therapy Improved Motor Deficit in Traumatic Brain Injury Trial
April 18, 2018

Steelers' Ryan Shazier visits medical staff in Cincinnati
October 13, 2018
Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Use your head: Even ‘mild’ brain injuries require follow-up care
May 31, 2018
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Lack of medical follow-up in head injuries a ‘massive public health epidemic,’ researcher says
March 25, 2018
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Ryan Shazier Begins Rehab After Spinal Surgery
December 14, 2017
Sports Illustrated

Steelers' Ryan Shazier has spinal stabilization surgery
December 7, 2017
Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Ryan Shazier to fans: 'Support is uplifting to me and my family'
December 6, 2017

Concussion: Its Diagnosis and Treatment
November 17, 2017

Preventing Concussions: Helmets, Mouthguards and Military Spending
November 16, 2017

Trickle-Down Safety: Sports Concussions
November 15, 2017

How Do Doctors Define Concussion?
November 15, 2017

The Burden Of Concussion And Traumatic Brain Injury
November 13, 2017

Scan brings brighter outlook for brain injuries
October 26, 2017
The Pitt News

TEAM-TBI: a Precision Medicine Approach for TBI
July 14, 2017
CDMRP Research Highlight News

For this UPMC surgeon, music is an important prescription for a successful procedure
March 1, 2017
Pittsburgh CityPaper

Dog undergoes rare spinal-cord surgery as UPMC neurosurgeon, radiologists give assistance
(David Okonkwo, MD, PhD)
January 29, 2017
Pittsburgh Post-Gazettte

Concussions research paper a major step
October 30, 2016
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pitt to lead trauma network through $90 million federal defense contract
October 19, 2016
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Obama embraces his inner 'science geek' at Pitt, Carnegie Mellon campuses
October 13, 2016
Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Rest not best for concussion recovery, experts conclude during UPMC Concussion Conference
October 17, 2015
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Concussion conference suggests that rest may not be the best treatment
October 17, 2015
NBC Sports

Concussions Are Treatable, Experts Conclude At NFL-Sponsored Scientific Meeting
October 16, 2015
International Business Times

Seeing the Brain's Broken Cables
August 3, 2015
Discover Magazine

Indiana couple's bond grows stronger after devastating accident
October 26, 2014
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

'Spectacular' Recovery for State Fair Stage Collapse Victim
March 10, 2013

University of Pittsburgh lands leading role in international brain injury study
October 22, 2013
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Less invasive spinal surgery pioneered by UPMC neurosurgeon helps patients recover quicker
July 23, 2012
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

XLIF Procedure for Scoliosis Surgery
July 9, 2012
Discovery Channel

MRI-based test could find hidden trauma
March 22, 2012
Associated Press

Pitt research unlocks secrets of brain
March 2, 2012
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

High-Definition Fiber Tracking Could Help To Diagnose Traumatic Brain Injury
March 1, 2012
Huffington Post

A pitt professor has developed a new way of understanding the workings of the human brain
August 23, 2011
Pittsburgh Quarterly