Sandia National Laboratories and the University of New Mexico are seeking to identity threshold levels of stress and energy that lead to traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) in an attempt to improve helmet designs, according to RedOrbit. Through studies using supercomputer simulations, computer modeling, and MRI analysis, the researchers hope to include program sensors on helmets that will calculate whether a blast is strong enough to cause TBI.
Paul Taylor and John Ludwigsen of Sandia’s Terminal Ballistics Technology Department, along with Corey ford, a neurologist at UNM’s Health Science’s Center, are leading the study, which is in its fourth and final year. According to Taylor, the study, which is funded by the Office of Naval Research, is the only TBI research that combines “computer modeling and simulation of the physical effects of a blast with analyses of clinical MRIs of patients who suffer such injuries.”
People who suffer from TBI may not be aware of their condition, as many do not experience symptoms. Soldiers who are exposed to blast waves can experience brief losses of consciousness, but symptoms, such as cognitive problems, memory loss, and headaches, can develop weeks later after more damage has evolved.
The team created a computer model of a man’s head and neck, making sure to include the jaw, as blasts that come from improvised explosive devices at ground level send waves through the jaw and facial structure before hitting the brain. Researchers also created geometric models of the seven tissue types in the human head. They spent a year cataloging each of the tissues and assigning one-millimeter cubes for the computer simulation.
With computed tomography scans of various helmets, researchers are able to conduct 3-D simulations that analyze the type of energy that enters the brain and its effects. Pressure and stress within the brain show up as colors moving in slow motion through and around the brain.
Clinical studies are also being conducted, and Ford studied 13 subjects who suffered mild TBI from the nearby blasts of improvised explosive devices. The subjects’ memory, language and intelligence were tested, and results were correlated with changes in fMRIs from the patients. Researchers then compared the results with those of a control group and were able to identity abnormal brain activity in the patients. Many of the patients’ brains with TBI are hyperactive because certain areas are compensating for areas that were damaged by the blasts. The team hopes to recruit more patients for further study.
Once researchers determine the threshold conditions that correlate with TBI, they can start focusing on helmet design. Taylor, who is Sandia’s principal investigator on the project, notes how their ultimate goal is “to help our military and eventually our civilian population by providing guidance to helmet designers so they can do a better job of protecting against some of these events we are seeing clinically and from a physics perspective.”