Low-tech solution could lessen brain injury severity

April 18, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Bay Area researchers may have found a way to better protect soldiers from what has become the signature injury of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The results of some high-tech testing have revealed a rather low-tech solution for protecting against traumatic brain injury. For a growing number of veterans like Jason Poole, traumatic brain injury is the hidden epidemic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We got hit with a massive, massive bomb. Two Iraqi interpreters were killed," he recalls.

But now, two years after ABC7 first met Jason, researchers at the Lawrence Livermore Lab may have discovered a better way to protect American soldiers from the impact of roadside bombs and other head traumas.

"When an IED goes off, you not only have typically, and impact, you get rocked and shaken, and thrown against side of your vehicle or knocked to the ground," explains mechanical engineer Mike King.

King was part of a team that tested the Army's advanced combat helmet and compared it against other systems including football helmets used in the NFL. They began with sophisticated stress tests to measure the characteristics of the padding, specifically, how the different systems absorb shock and which would be best for the battlefield.

"The impact scenario is probably very different because a person is getting sort of picked up and knocked against the wall of the vehicle instead of running full tilt into someone else. An NFL helmet doesn't have to stop a fragment, this does," King says.

Researchers used CT scans to analyze the helmet shells and impact experiments to determine their strength. They then turned that data into sophisticated computer models. The findings those models ultimately revealed were surprising.

"We found that if you change the thickness of the pad and you also upsize the helmet one size and then put a bigger pad in, we found that there was a very substantial decrease in the accelerations that were imparted to the head," researcher Willy moss says.

In other words, an increase of roughly 1/8 of an inch in thickness in the helmet pads the Army already uses could significantly increase protection.

"If you have the pad system and the helmet that's slightly bigger, and if an injury that was very severe is now not quite as severe, that's a big shift," Moss says.

It is a big shift with a potentially huge impact for veterans like Poole. Estimates now place the number of soldiers suffering from TBI's from Iraq and Afghanistan in the hundreds of thousands.

Researchers say the adjustments could be made without reconfiguring the helmets, meaning the cost would likely be minimal. The results have been passed on to the Army and a Defense Department unit set up to study roadside bombings.


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