David O. Okonkwo, MD, PhD

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

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. Dr. Okonkwo is currently chair of the AANS/CNS Section on Neurotrauma and Critical Care. 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 275 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 Organization Membership

Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society
American Academy of Neurosurgery
American Association of Neurological Surgery
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, 2018-21

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-upEur 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 StudyJ 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 TBIBrain 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 InjuryJ 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 injuryMil 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 deformityJ 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 StudyJ 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 randomized trialLancet 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

Transforming Research and Clinical Knowledge in Traumatic Brain Injury 
TRACK-TBI is an 18-site consortium that is rapidly changing the landscape for TBI care and research through more precise TBI diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. Dr. Okonkwo is a principal investigator of this effort.

Comprehensive Biomarker Panel for Trauma-Related Dementia: Mechanistic Links Among Axonal Injury, Neuroinflammation, and Neurodegeneration
This study is a Department of Defense-funded study with a goal to establish a comprehensive neuroimaging and biomarker panel of trauma-related dementia, so that the pathophysiologic mechanisms underlying persistent trauma-induced cognitive impairments may be better understood and targeted for therapy. 

Brain Oxygen Optimization in Severe Traumatic Brain Injury-Phase 3 
BOOST-3 is a major randomized prospective clinical trial for severe TBI patients. The first randomized controlled trial of brain tissue oxygen monitoring in severe TBI (BOOST-2) demonstrated improvement in brain physiology through multimodal neuromonitoring. BOOST-3 will determine if there is evidence of clinical efficacy of a treatment protocol based on PbtO2 monitoring compared to treatment based on ICP monitoring alone.

Media Appearances

How the Power of Positivity Defined the Moments After the Injury That Changed My Life
November 30, 2021

Ryan Shazier, a walking miracle: Former Steelers LB details journey in new book
November 25, 2021
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Wings for Vets nonprofit gives Pittsburgh-area veterans a lift
November 7, 2021
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Fearless and faithful, Clemson's Justyn Ross is ready to make the most of his second chance
August 26, 2021

Neurotrauma & Critical Care
April 25, 2021
Neurosurgery Podcast

Clemson’s run-game solutions, Justyn Ross’ return: Tigers mailbag
January 15, 2021
The Athletic

Clemson's Justyn Ross, top NFL prospect, gets 'positive' news from doctor about future
December 14, 2020
Greenvile (NC) News

Dabo Swinney Expects Clemson WR Justyn Ross to Play Football Again
December 13, 2020
Sports Illustrated: Clemson

Spinal Cord Injury and Recovery with Ryan Shazier
December 3, 2020
WESA (NPR) The Confluence

Swinney: Clemson's Ross Clearing Rehab Hurdles, Still Has Ways to Go
October 14, 2020
Sports Illustrated: Clemson

Traumatic Brain Injury Assessment Now Possible Within 15 Minutes: Study
September 18, 2020
QNews Hub

Point-of-care prototype blood test reveals brain injuries in minutes
September 18, 2020
New Atlas

Clemson WR Justyn Ross Says He Will 'Shock the World' After Major Spinal Surgery
June 4, 2020
Bleacher Report

Ross' doctors, coaches hopeful he will play football again
June 2, 2020
Clemson Insider

Clemson's top returning wide receiver, Justyn Ross, to miss 2020 football season
June 2, 2020
USA Today

Neurosurgeons and Trauma: A National Resource
January 19, 2020
Neurosurgery Podcast

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
January 29, 2017
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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