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High-Tech Crystals May Help Diagnose Battlefield Brain Injuries

by John Reed on December 3, 2010

For years, Pentagon officials have been worried about troops who have survived an IED blast seemingly ok, but are left suffering from serious concussions and worse. Now, there may be a way for medics to quickly and easily identify troops that have these injuries.

These invisible wounds have a cumulative effect, with each successive head injury causing more and more damage. While doctors have been studying the effects of head injuries brought about by everything from car crashes to violent hits in football, the shockwaves generated by IEDs may be an entirely different beast.

From MIT’s Technology Review:

Growing evidence suggests that the shockwaves produced by these explosions lead to injuries that are different from concussions suffered in car accidents and football games—and that even seemingly minor blasts, from which a soldier might walk away apparently unharmed, could damage the brain, especially with repeated exposure.

Now, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania hare developing crystals that change color when shattered by IED shockwaves. This would give medics an easy way of seeing how much blast energy a soldier has absorbed, allowing them to more accurately assess whether the victim should be treated for a possible brain injury.

“Soldiers [with mild traumatic brain injury] can often appear normal, so it’s critically important to have some kind of objective measure to denote which soldiers have been exposed to a blast that is powerful enough to cause brain injury,” says Kacy Cullen, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Penn and leader of the study. “These devices wouldn’t diagnose brain injury, but they would indicate who needs a more thorough workup, and could influence decisions about when a soldier can return to action.”

The powerful blasts triggered by improvised explosive devices generate a supersonic wave followed by another shock wave called an overpressure wave. These forces are often strong enough to throw someone in the air, triggering the kind of blunt impact one might experience in a car accident. But many scientists believe that the waves themselves, in addition to the impact, can damage the brain.

The military has amped up efforts to measure the specific properties of explosions using helmet-mounted accelerometers and pressure sensors, but these devices have drawbacks. “They can be expensive, cumbersome, and require power to operate,” says Cullen. “Ours is a materials-based indicator, so you don’t need an internal power supply; the power from the blast induces the color change.”

Here’s more info on the tech behind these crystals:

The three-dimensional crystal is made with multiple laser beams that carve precise shapes into a photosensitive plastic sheet, using holographic lithography technology developed by Shu Yang, a professor in the department of materials science and engineering at Penn. The result is a material that is mechanically strong but lightweight. By varying the chemistry and composition of the materials, the three-dimensional photonic crystals can be made very resistant to extreme heat or cold and wet or dry conditions. “You can hit it with a hammer, and it won’t change color,” says Smith. “It will only break at the type of very-high-frequency shockwave you might get in a blast.”

Scientists can even tweak the crystals to make them respond to different strength blasts.

“We can also make material so it will fail in response to repeated exposure,” says Douglas Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at Penn, who was senior author on the study. “We might create a device with multiple components that can detect both a single exposure and cumulative exposure like with a radioactivity badge.”

Anything, like these crystals, that can help save lives is a good thing, ’nuff said.

Read more about it here.

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