Penn kick returner Justin Morrison was prepared for the question and the quizzical look.

He's gotten used to them since the summer, when, as an intern, he joined the research team studying the "Longitudinal Assessment of Cerebral Vascular Dysfunction in Traumatic Brain Injury Using Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy."

"Well, we use the generic name: Sildenafil," said Morrison, a senior from Swedesboro, "but, yes, it's Viagra."

Morrison has always been fascinated that, in scientific research, one path can suddenly lead to the discovery of a different path.

Keeping this in the layman's terms, Viagra has become famous because it helps stimulate an erection by allowing blood flow in the spongy tissue of the penis. One aspect of traumatic brain injury (TBI) is that sustained, high intracranial pressure can prevent blood passage to the tissue in the brain, causing further damage.

Neurologist Ramon Diaz-Arrastia, also the associate director for clinical research at the Penn Center for Brain Injury and Repair, where he leads the TBI Clinical Research Initiative, began studying whether the effects of Viagra could help design better therapies for patients who suffered TBI.

Justin Morrison
Penn Athletics
Justin Morrison

Morrison, who is enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences and majoring in the biological basis of behavior, had been looking for a research internship since 2016 and came in contact with postdoctoral researcher Michael Sangobowale, a former Penn football player.

When a position with Diaz-Arrastia opened, Sangobowale recommended Morrison, who came in through Penn's MindCORE fellowship.

"This fit perfectly into what I was interested in," Morrison said. "Coming into Penn, I've always been interested in the brain and how it works in different people. I wanted to learn more about it than just in my normal course work."

There also was the football aspect.

On Saturday, Morrison will be on the field when the Quakers play at Brown. He has long played the game and has even been dinged a couple of times.

As a player and a scholar, Morrison knows that TBI can be a serious issue with football players and other athletes participating in collision sports.

"Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a big issue in football today," Morrison said. "I have thought about the long-term impact our studies could help make. Research is really worthwhile, because it has the potential to make discoveries that could really change the landscape.

"Hopefully, this can lead to some kind of positive effect in the whole area of sports and brain injuries. If what I'm doing can have even a small part in impacting something like that, it would be amazing."

Being a researcher requires patience. Rarely do cures for long-standing issues come overnight.

Success is measured incrementally, sometimes in slow increments.

"We know that Viagra expands and closes the blood vessels in different parts of the body," Morrison said. "So, it really just started as a hypothesis, to see if it had any therapeutic effects in TBI.

"In our particular research, we did see a general increase in a good amount of patients. But when it comes to research, there are different scales: Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3.

"We're in Phase 1. We have some positive results, but it is a small sample size. Hopefully, as we keep going on, we can get some conclusive results."

Penn at Brown

1 p.m. Saturday

Records: Penn (4-2, 1-2 in Ivy); Brown (1-5, 0-3)

Coaches: Ray Priore, 24-12, in fourth season at Penn; Phil Estes, 116-85, in 21st season at Brown.

TV/radio: WFIL-AM (560); streaming on ESPN+

History: Penn won, 17-7, last season. Penn leads the series, 59-24-2.

Three things to watch

  1. The Quakers have struggled all season in the field-position battle. They have started 10 drives inside their own 15-yard line, nine inside their 10, seven inside their 5, and five on their 1-yard line. The Quakers actually have two 99-yard scoring drives, including one for its only touchdown against Yale on Oct. 19.
  2. The Penn running game, which was nonexistent against Yale, has a chance to reemerge. Brown's run defense is ranked 115th in FCS, yielding 261.5 yards per game. The Bears give up an average of 35.5 points.
  3. Penn has beaten Brown four consecutive times, and the Bears are in the midst of an 11-game losing streak in Ivy League play. A win by the Quakers would guarantee a .500-or-better record in all four seasons under Priore.