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‘Digital head’ helps diagnose traumaic brain injuries

A ‘digital head’ helps diagnose traumatic brain injuries. (Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory)

A new “digital head” might help doctors spot a brain injury and give them an idea of appropriate treatments to help patients recover.

Every year, nearly three million people in the United States injure their heads enough to be diagnosed with a concussion, and the severity of these injuries varies greatly. Sometimes, symptoms are mild. A person may experience headaches, dizziness and memory loss, but if they are lucky, a few days later, everything is back to normal.

In more severe cases, symptoms last much longer. Concussion is a form of mild traumatic brain injury, and even mild TBIs may have significant lifelong effects. For example, repeated concussions can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a serious degenerative brain disease.

These kinds of head injuries can be hard to detect, which limits treatment. The new “digital head” might help.

But first, medically speaking, a TBI occurs when the head experiences trauma that causes the brain to violently move back and forth, hitting the inner walls of the skull. That impact causes harmful deformation waves to travel through the brain, potentially injuring various regions. These waves can stretch parts of the brain, damaging microscopic neural cells in the brain called axons. Axons are normally responsible for transmitting electrical impulses that help control the nervous system and body movements; however, when a significant number of injured axons stop working, the brain temporarily loses that capability.

While doctors and researchers use loss of consciousness to identify a concussion, diagnosing the severity and location of brain injury remains a challenge. Typical clinical imaging techniques, such as MRI or CT scans, cannot spot the location of mild brain injuries. These imaging techniques can show bleeding, but they cannot identify tiny regions of injury to axons without a biopsy. This leaves doctors with basic methods of diagnosis, such as memory tests, to determine the severity.

One of the biggest challenges in TBI research is the lack of a way to gather real data. For obvious ethical reasons, researchers do not perform injury-causing experiments. So, how can researchers and doctors get better at understanding and diagnosing concussions?

The digital head – a new software tool – may hold the answers they seek.

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory are developing a computer modeling software that can simulate the brain and how it reacts to trauma. The model includes several unique factors that reveal what is happening to the brain at the cellular level and also pinpoint where injury has occurred. Knowing this can help alert medical professionals and identify the root cause of cognitive impairments a person may suffer, especially for an unconscious victim.

While computer models of the brain are not new, Los Alamos’ digital head takes into account a patient’s specific brain anatomy – a factor that is important in accurately determining the location of brain injury. Previous models have treated the brain as one solid object, rather than a complex organ made up of many different parts, and those models are restricted to the anatomy of an average adult.

In addition to being able to predict TBI, the digital head can also help improve helmet design and energy-absorbing materials for personal protective equipment. While advances in technology and materials over time have improved the ability of helmets to prevent skull fracture, there is still no consensus on design standards for protection against TBI. Helmets do protect the head, but harder impacts fail to stop the brain from moving. Knowing how a helmet design performs before it is ever produced can save time, money and lives. This could help soldiers, athletes and people who enjoy such recreational sports as riding a bike or skiing.

In the future, improved helmets could be integrated with sensors that provide real-time data of impacts. This data, fed into the digital head model, could help doctors quickly and accurately diagnose brain injuries or mild concussions that otherwise go undetected, while getting an accurate idea of the severity. Ultimately, the digital head could help save lives.

Nitin Daphalapurkar is a scientist in Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Theoretical Division.

 

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