David O. Okonkwo, MD, PhD

Professor of Neurological Surgery
Executive Vice Chair, Clinical Operations
Clinical Director, Brain Trauma Research Center

David O. Okonkwo




David O. Okonkwo, MD, PhD, is executive vice chair for clinical operations and is director of neurotrauma, director of scoliosis and spinal deformity at UPMC Presbyterian. He is also professor and clinical director of the Brain Trauma Research Center of the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Okonkwo completed his undergraduate work at the University of Virginia, where he received the University Academic Achievement Award and was named 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, Auckland, New Zealand. He has additional specialized training in scoliosis and other spinal deformities.

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 advanced neuroimaging modalities and novel therapeutic interventions for brain and spinal cord injury. Dr. Okonkwo is the principal investigator of a nationally funded clinical core to study the pathophysiology of traumatic brain injury. He is also principal investigator of several ongoing clinical studies in neurotrauma in Pittsburgh.

Dr. Okonkwo has published more than 120 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.

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

Specialized Areas of Interest

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

Board Certifications

American Board of Neurological Surgery

Hospital Privileges

Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC
Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC
UPMC Presbyterian
UPMC Mercy
Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System

Professional Organizational Membership

Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society
American Association of Neurological Surgeons
American Spinal Injury Association
Congress of Neurological Surgeons
National Neurotrauma Society

Honors and Awards

Best Doctors in America, 2012-15
Pittsburgh’s Best Doctors, Pittsburgh Magazine, 2012-15

Media Appearances

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

Giffords' Brain Fluid Buildup a 'Minor Setback,' but Other Risks Remain
January 25, 2011 
AOL News

Research Activities

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

TRACK-TBI is an 11-site consortium that is recruiting 3000 acute TBI subjects. TRACK-TBI will directly impact the 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.

2) Targeted Evaluation, Action, and Monitoring of Traumatic Brain Injury (aka TEAM-TBI)

TEAM-TBI is a monitored multiple intervention clinical trial for TBI patients designed to address the heterogeneity of TBI and identify evidence-based therapies for participating subjects. In TEAM-TBI, small groups of TBI patients undergo a comprehensive intake evaluation, complemented by advanced neuroimaging, biomarker analysis and an innovative sleep study analysis. A multi-disciplinary panel reviews all data, stratifies subjects into clinical TBI subtypes (trajectories) and recommends targeted therapeutic interventions. Each participant departs Pittsburgh with a customized TEAM-TBI Toolkit containing necessary materials for targeted therapies.

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.

4) High Definition Fiber Tracking Biological Diagnosis of TBI Providing Actionable Clinical Report of Quantified Damage

The goal of this project is to test and deploy a technology that will provide a biological diagnosis of acute traumatic brain injury (TBI) based on a new MRI diffusion method called High Definition Fiber Tracking (HDFT).