New brain trauma has researchers targeting IED blasts

Brain imaging showing the connective fibers of the brain.
Brain imaging showing the connective fibers of the brain.
IED test blast.
IED test blast.
The synthetic-celery mixture that is being used to simulate brain matter.
The synthetic-celery mixture that is being used to simulate brain matter.

By Debi Chard bio | email

LADSON, SC (WCSC) - IEDs have now added a new dimension to battlefield injuries. Doctors are seeing an increase in injuries and even deaths among troops who have no external signs of trauma but whose brains have been severely damaged.

Troops near IED explosions can suffer perforated eardrums, ringing in the ears, blurred vision, memory lapses and headaches. In fact, IEDs are the top cause of brain injuries for U.S. troops. They account for almost 80 percent of all wounds and are responsible for 60 percent of those killed.

Soldiers often return to combat after initially recovering from a concussion, or a bruising of the brain. Recent research shows that such blasts can cause damage deep inside the brain, and the symptoms may remain hidden for years.

Congress authorized $150 million for brain injury research in an emergency spending bill passed in May, 2008 for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now, a Ladson company is funding research to study the new phenomenon and hope to one day soften the blow of an IED.

From Afghanistan to Edgefield, SC

IED blasts are a part of life outside Edgefield, SC, but here -- unlike those in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the detonations are part of a study to test the firepower of roadside bombs. In Iraq and Afghanistan, armored combat vehicles like the Buffalo and the Cougar protect troops from the threats of modern warfare.

Ten years ago, an IED blast would have destroyed a vehicle and killed everyone on board. Now, new armor plating and blast deflection technology are bringing troops home alive. However, the blasts still create a problem.

An estimated 20 percent of our service men and women endure such a violent experience during a blast they suffer concussions or Traumatic Brain Injury, "so someone has ringing in ears daily, headaches, they can't walk, they can't concentrate," said leading TBI researcher Dr. Mark George.

Dr. George says the entire experience is so frustrating for troops because they may have symptoms of trauma, but brain scans don't show a problem. "So, people say if we can't see it, it must not exist," he said. "You're making it up."

What does celery have to do with brain injuries?

But Dr. George is using a modified MRI and some celery to prove the injury is real.

Celery fibers are similar to connective cables in the brain. When the troops are shaken by a blast, it's possible these cables get shifted and frayed.

Dr. George studies blast video in slow motion, pointing out how it distorts everything around it. "That's the blast pressure wave that goes out from the explosive before the fire wall even gets there," he said.

Dr. George says it will pass through the body -- and brain -- bending and changing as it goes.

Researchers stip up a mock-brain using a gel that has the properties of a human brain with celery fibers to respresent the connective cables inside the brain. The canisters of gel and celery that survive the blast are studied for damage.

Thye hope to see what changes happen, and what damage is created, when a shockwave hits the brain. "We don't know how a shockwave impacts the body and the brain until we can actually see it," said Tommy Pruitt from Force Protection Industries.

From celery in a lab to real world implementation

Force Protection funded research so they can make their armored vehicles even safer for troops stationed in hotspots around the globe. As  Force Protection continue to develop and design new, safer vehicles, they have a big question for brain researchers: what's most damaging -- the blast wave or the concussive effects that follow?

Force Protection needs to know which one is more important in producing TBI because that would affect vehicle design and interestingly, no one on the planet knows.

"We want them home in one piece, physically and mentally," said Pruitt.

And they are serious about finding a solution. So far, Force Protection has spent over $2 million on TBI research at MUSC.

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