Elham Rostami wants to use AI to alleviate brain damage

Researcher profile

Elham Rostami stands with her arms crossed, wearing surgical clothes in an operating theatre. A screen with brain images is visible in the background.

Elham Rostami’s goal is to create more personalised care for people affected by head injuries. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Her work is focused on providing the best possible treatment for patients suffering from head injuries. Rostami is a neurosurgeon and researcher unafraid of late nights or political involvement if it can ultimately lead to better care for people.

Patients affected by brain haemorrhages and brain tumours turn to neurosurgeon Elham Rostami. She also receives people who have suffered head injuries as a result of external factors. They may have fallen off their bikes, been involved in a road accident or been assaulted. It is this latter type of trauma on which her research focuses.

“I hope to develop a more personalised treatment for head injury patients so that as many people as possible can benefit. It’s a question of both the time they spend in hospital and during the later rehabilitation – which patient should be offered what?” explains Rostami, Associate Professor of Neurosurgery at Uppsala University and Neurosurgeon at Uppsala University Hospital.

There is currently no medicine that can help repair damaged brain tissue. Instead, medical staff work to create the best possible conditions for hospitalised patients, for example by regulating brain pressure, blood pressure, blood sugar and breathing.

“We have guidelines that we follow for head injury patients. For example, the pressure in the brain should be below a certain limit, and if it deviates, we try to take measures to bring it below that limit. Each patient is different, but the guidelines are the same for everyone. Of course, we adapt 'bedside', but we need to examine what this adaptation entails.”

While in the hospital, patients are monitored using many different instruments, resulting in huge amounts of data – information that she now hopes to analyse with the help of AI.

“It can be difficult for an individual to process all available data bedside. The hope is that AI will provide support and serve as a tool that can help us offer the best treatment to that particular patient.”

Elham Rostami stands by an empty hospital bed in the neurointensive care unit. Lots of screens are visible in the background.

When patients are hospitalised, they are monitored by a variety of instruments. The hope is to be able to use AI to analyse this data. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

In her and others’ previous research, it has become clear that some patients recover better from head injuries than others. Age is known to play a major role, with younger individuals usually faring better.

“IQ and cognitive ability can also affect the outcome. Research also shows differences between men and women, especially depending on the age of the woman, but much remains unknown as studies have mainly focused on men.”

When it comes to developing new medicines and treatments, it is important to understand the factors that help some patients cope well with injuries, so that we can create similar conditions for other patient groups.

Elected to Young Academy of Sweden

The desire to contribute to better care has also stirred political engagement. in 2022, Rostami was elected to the Young Academy of Sweden, a network of outstanding researchers that promotes research policy issues. As a member, she has been particularly committed to the conditions of clinical researchers.

As it stands today, it is difficult to combine research with clinical work. Rostami refers to a report by the Swedish Medical Association, which shows that a large proportion of doctors who research have to conduct it in their spare time. This is also true for her. Although she has managed to secure external funding, thus giving her more dedicated time for research, she often has to squeeze research work in after clinic opening hours and when the children are in bed. Although there are efforts to combine services, she feels that these are not sufficient. There is a need for greater integration of research and development throughout the organisation.

“The number of doctors conducting research is decreasing. In the clinic, you don’t really get any direct benefits from doing research. I think the work you do as a clinical researcher at a university hospital should be valued as highly as your clinical work,” she notes, before continuing:

“There is a strong focus on production in healthcare, but I believe that university hospitals should be adequately resourced to fulfil all their missions, including research and education.”

Time with patients is reward

Rostami knew she wanted to combine clinical and academic work even back when she applied to Karolinska Institutet’s medical programme with a research focus. She met Professor Urban Ungerstedt there, who was working on head injuries; it was he who introduced her to a range of projects while she was still a student. When it came time to specialise, she applied to Uppsala University Hospital, which has a strong profile in neurotrauma. She has been working ever since.

Portrait of Elham Rostami inside the neurointensive care unit.

“You have to really enjoy it, which I do,” replies Rostami when asked how she manages night shifts in the emergency department, research and a range of other commitments on the side. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

When we meet at the hospital, she has just returned from a trip to Geneva with the Young Academy of Sweden. It’s 3 o’ clock and she’s about to start her second night shift. Rostami speaks highly of the people she meets in her job, especially the elderly.

“Spending time with patients is the reward; that’s what motivates you to continue. But the workload is intense.

She also mentions that being a woman in neurosurgery isn’s always easy – it requires a lot of resilience. The same is true in research, where many rejections and setbacks have to be dealt with as part of the job.

One way to handle it all is to find it enjoyable. She is also both a curious and patient person – characteristics that to some extent stem from her childhood. Rostami was seven years old when her family fled Iran for Sweden.

“I think I brought this hard work ethic from home. It was tough when we were young, but we were given a chance and we couldn’t let it go to waste. What others see in you is so important, as the Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani said, and I have been fortunate to have a supportive family and to meet great role models and people who have believed in me.”

Sandra Gunnarsson

Elham Rostami

Recent news: Docent in Neurosurgery at Uppsala University and Neurosurgeon at Uppsala University Hospital. She is also a member of the Young Academy of Sweden, a Beijer researcher since 2022, Vice Chair of the Neurotrauma section of the European Association of Neurosurgery (EANS) and a board member of the World Federation of Neurosurgery (WFNS).

Family: Husband and two children, 8 and 5 years old.

Lives: Stockholm

Favourite pastime: Spending time with family, reading and exercising.

Hidden talent: Is good at drawing: for example, has supplied anatomy drawings to various publications.

Latest book read: This Life by philosopher Martin Hägglund. Currently reading Konsulterna : kampen om Karolinska (The consultants: the battle for Karolinska)