Study Measures Traumatic Brain Injury
By Christen N. McCluney
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 5, 2010 Scientists at the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center and a professor at Columbia University are working on a collaborative study measuring brain damage on traumatic brain injury patients.
"It's a large problem to the Army and the soldiers," Thomas Meitzler, a scientist at the Army center, said during a Feb. 3 interview on the Pentagon Channel podcast “Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military.”
He was also joined by Joy Hirsch, professor at Columbia University and director of the Program for Imaging and Cognitive Sciences.
Soldiers who are exposed to blasts associated with roadside bombs often are not aware of any resulting mild TBI and return to duty without proper medical diagnosis and treatment. The study, a cooperative research and development agreement between TARDEC and the Columbia University Medical School, is helping to determine what areas of the brain are susceptible to damage and measuring how the brain is engaged while performing certain functions.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging, a specialized MRI that captures high-resolution images of the brain and identifies regions engaged during specific mental tasks, allows the researchers to ask patients to do tasks and look at what parts of the brain are working during a specific function.
"Oftentimes in traumatic brain injury, patients have symptoms of injury, but the physical evidence is not obvious," Hirsch said. "When we apply a functional MRI, then we can begin to understand the neurophysiology that underlies the behavioral disabilities."
Participants are asked to do cognitive, language and memory tasks so researchers can understand how the brain works during target acquisition in the field. "We have a battery of tests that are aimed to probe people’s ability to control emotions, memories and to solve problems," Hirsch said.
Meitzler added that understanding how the brain works is important in helping to optimize tasks, and doing this provides a window into how the brain works during decision making, identification and search in the field.
The researchers also are proposing that soldiers be scanned before they are deployed and then upon their return to provide a basis for comparison.
"We hope to store that information on a digital dog tag so that [it] is always carried with them and can be referred to at a later time," Meitzler said.
It would be a great baseline of information, Hirsch said, and doing the comparison when soldiers return from deployment also would help to start treatment of brain injuries much earlier and before behavioral signs kick in.
The results of using this imaging will be used to guide and monitor therapy, and prevent compounding injury by multiple blast exposures.
"Functional MRI has become the backbone of neuroscience,” Hirsch said. "We can use it for new ways to think about treatments."
The team also is looking into putting sensors inside armored vehicles so that they can record the magnitude and location of roadside-bomb blasts. With information about the size or type of blast the vehicle has experienced, the team can relate that to patients and be more proactive in treatments of future patients who experience similar injuries.
With this information, future vehicles could be developed so that blasts cause fewer injuries, the scientists said.
(Christen N. McCluney works in the Defense Media Activity's emerging media directorate.)