Joining forces on brain injuries

A phantom head will house simulated brain matter and sensors to study traumatic brain injury. Creating a viable phantom is the first goal of the Force Protection Center for Brain Research at Medical University of South Carolina. Research results will be u

People with traumatic brain injuries suffer an array of symptoms — headaches, memory loss, slurred speech — yet scans of their brains can look normal.

That frustrating lack of physical evidence in the brain was embarrassing, said Dr. Mark George, a professor at Medical University of South Carolina and leading researcher in imaging. But recent advancements are changing that.

To tap into the latest and greatest in imaging, armored-vehicle maker Force Protection Inc. committed $5 million to team up with MUSC.

The partnership's goal is threefold: to better understand how brain injuries happen, how to make vehicles and helmets safer and ultimately to offer new treatments.

Up to 320,000 military service members, or 19 percent of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, are estimated to have experienced a traumatic brain injury, according to a study released this month by RAND, a nonprofit research organization. Since October 2001, about 1.6 million U.S. troops have been deployed to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The first task of the Force Protection Center for Brain Research at MUSC is to create a "phantom," or model, of the human head. Researchers will concoct spaghetti-like simulated brain matter to fill the phantom head, George said. The matter will react like brain tissue and "remember" the effects of trauma.

Using new imaging techniques, researchers will scan the phantom before and after a trauma to see the effects.

Up until the past few years, only dramatic trauma — strokes and large brain bleeds — appeared on scans. An advanced form of magnetic resonance imaging, called diffusion tensor imaging, or DTI, is able to capture information about the nerve wiring inside the brain.

And it is on this level that many brain injuries occur, fraying the nerves' sheathing and disrupting their connections. DTI traces water flowing through the brain as it travels along nerves. When those nerves are jagged or stunted from an injury that is otherwise invisible, DTI can track the diffusion of water in the brain.

Ultimately, the phantom head will be attached to a crash-test dummy and used in testing Force Protection's armored vehicles.

"We know the physics of a blast," said Damon Walsh, Force Protection executive vice president. "We don't know the physiology of the blast."

Force Protection's donation comes in the face of ongoing accounting problems, which have led the Nasdaq stock market to threaten to delist its stock.

Walsh described the company as in good financial health, debt-free and currently holding more than $70 million in cash.

Force Protection makes mine-resistant vehicles equipped with special V-shaped metal hulls that are credited with saving lives of service members serving in war zones. The com-pany is based in North Charleston and has a testing site in Edgefield.

Jerry Reves, dean of MUSC's College of Medicine, said local industry investing in the research university is mutually beneficial.

While MUSC is state-funded, only 6.4 percent of the university's budget comes from state coffers.

The future of the collaboration is broad, company and university officials said. They plan to share their findings publicly.

Societal costs associated with treating mild brain injury is up to $32,000 per case, and moderate to severe cases range from $268,000 to more than $400,000, according to RAND researchers.

On a national scale, the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs have joined together to create Center of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury and improve data sharing.