Hidden Injury: Military Device Diagnoses Potential for TBI

Advocates for veterans suspect that 10 to 20 percent of Iraq veterans have some form of traumatic brain injury. That means 150,000 to 300,000 veterans are living with this condition. The source of these disabling injuries among veterans often is traceable to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that service members encounter at war.

The full effects of a traumatic brain injury aren’t always known at the time of impact. Furthermore, there has not been an objective measure of the severity of such brain traumas. A federal agency is now addressing this problem.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has created a device called a blast gauge to be worn by soldiers. The tool measures the effects of an explosion. It also can provide critical warning signs in the event that a blast has caused severe brain trauma.

Warning Lights

The blast gauge, which is about the size of a thumb, has three colored lights and a dome of metal mesh to protect the microprocessor inside. It is designed to be strapped to body armor on the chest or shoulder or to the back of a helmet.

When a soldier is struck by an IED, the gauge immediately gathers information. One of the lights is activated depending on the severity of the explosion. When the soldier returns to the fire base or outpost, the gauge is inserted into a laptop through an USB cable. All of the available data are then translated into detailed waveforms that tell the soldier whether the blast was serious enough to cause concern about a possible TBI.

Even if a colored light indicates a mild blast, soldiers are encouraged to seek medical attention if they suspect a brain injury has occurred. The gauge contains essential information that can help doctors at field hospitals diagnose issues and perform triage.

Unfortunately, people who have brain trauma aren’t always able to give doctors the facts of what happened. So the gauge provides details that help medical caregivers choose an effective treatment without delay.

Simulation of Explosion

In addition to collecting information about blast waves, the gauge can reveal the terrain where the explosion took place and the presence of nearby walls or ditches, including their sizes. The gauge may even record whether vehicles were in the vicinity and whether their doors were open at the time of the event. Once the gauge is connected to a computer, this device offers a simulation of the actual explosion in full detail.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency continues to make improvements to the sensor. Scientists plan to give the gauge the capacity to protect soldiers from exceeding certain training and wartime blast standards. Military leaders can reassign soldiers to other positions if the safety threshold is reached. That would reduce exposure to blast dangers among those most at risk of injury.