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Intelligent Machines

Fighting Head Trauma in Iraq

Sensor-equipped helmets that measure the shock from explosive devices could reach the field this year.

The war in Iraq is bringing a well-documented but hardly understood battlefield injury into the limelight: traumatic brain injury (TBI). In an effort to learn more about the injury, the U.S. Army awarded Simbex, of Lebanon, NH, a million-dollar contract to develop sensor-studded helmets for combat soldiers. The army is currently testing the helmet technology, which could be deployed as early as December of this year.

High-tech headgear: A dummy wears an advanced combat helmet equipped with eight accelerometers and one pressure transducer. The sensor system was designed by Simbex of Lebanon, NH, under a contract with the U.S. Army. The army is looking for ways to both measure the forces exerted on combat soldiers by nearby explosions and learn more about the biomechanics of brain injury.

TBI “is going to be the signature injury of the war, and my suspicion is that the consequences are going to far outweigh agent orange from Vietnam,” says Kevin Kit Parker, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Harvard University, who served with the U.S. Army in southern Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003. The most common cause of TBI is improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which emit shock waves–waves of air pressure–that travel at around 1,000 feet per second, or close to the speed of sound. They also propel fragments of shrapnel that can hit a soldier’s helmet with enough force to knock him or her to the ground. While such blasts can cause devastating wounds, and even death, they can also rattle the brain’s soft tissue, causing invisible, permanent damage.

Simbex, a research and product-development company that specializes in biomechanical feedback systems, equipped the army’s combat helmets with sensors that measure the magnitude, location, and direction of blasts and the pressure changes that occur because of the resulting shock wave. “There are lots of different types of injuries that can be caused by blast events,” says Jeff Chu, the vice president of engineering at Simbex, “and we are only measuring two of the parameters that are most associated with shock waves and blast events: the acceleration of the body and pressure.”

In tests that should take four to six weeks to complete, the army is comparing the Simbex system with several alternative technologies. The system that performs best is likely to reach the field quickly.

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Earlier, Simbex developed a system for measuring the blows sustained by competitors in sporting events, such as football. The technology was acquired in 2004 by Riddell, which uses it in football helmets. (See “A Helmet That Detects Hard Hits.”) The combat-helmet system is similar to the one used in football helmets; accelerometers built into the helmet’s liner measure the acceleration of a soldier’s head. But the army helmets use eight accelerometers, developed by Endevco, whose high bandwidth allows them to measure both high-magnitude and high-frequency impacts. Engineers at Simbex have also equipped the helmets with a pressure transducer to measure the pressure changes caused by the shock wave–another factor that, according to Chu, may be causing brain injuries.

The company has not yet developed a practical system for extracting, storing, and analyzing the data collected by the sensors. But if its technology prevails in the army’s tests, Simbex plans to develop an automatic data-collation system that might, for example, rely on radio frequency identification (RFID) technology in army bases or on handheld scanners used by medics on the battlefield.

“Measuring the effects of IEDs is very important, and it is very difficult to get on-the-field data as to how soldiers or marines are exposed to blasts,” says Parker, whose personal experience in Afghanistan inspired him to begin work in his own lab to understand how IEDs cause TBIs. He is also working on tissue-engineering technologies for amputees.

“The big question for scientists like me is how the shock wave is propagated into the skull,” Parker says. “We don’t know that; we don’t know what the nature of these injuries are–if nerves are being compressed, sheared, the extent of vascular injury, and what is going on in the microcellular environment.”

The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, created by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2006, is investing a lot of money–and trying to involve a wide range of people–in an effort to address the IED problem. “It is a great thing that they [Simbex] are developing this type of technology, and the army is moving on this,” says Parker. “Let’s just hope they can fight through the bureaucracy and get things to the soldiers as quickly as possible.”

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